Laurie Penny: It's not good enough just to want to be in power

Many cling to a sense that if we only wait long enough, fairness and equality will eventually come about

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If you want to know more about a person in five seconds, ask them how much it matters that a former high-school bully is polling at 46 per cent in the race for the American presidency. According to several independent witnesses, the young Mitt Romney spent his early teenage years menacing effeminate students at his elite prep school. On one occasion, he apparently encouraged his classmates to hold down a fellow pupil called John Lauber, using scissors to hack off the weeping, struggling boy's hair, which the future multimillionaire governor of Massachusetts considered too long. When the incident came to light some weeks ago, Romney first denied any memory of it, then wrote it off as a "prank". Perhaps it was, but only the sort of prank you laugh at because you're worried someone might hit you if you don't.

To some people, that's a harmless piece of trivia. Personally, though, I can't help going over that scene in my mind whenever Romney's face appears on television, with its bared teeth and robotic tan sheen of a Ken doll gone feral. It's hard to stop imagining the Republican front-runner 50 years ago, standing over that crying boy on the ground, holding a pair of scissors. I know it's not fair. Nobody should have to spend their adulthood accounting for all the ignoble things they did as a teenager, and in Romney's case, there are far more immediate issues, such as his plan to hand a colossal tax break to the top 1 per cent of earners while cutting social services. Nonetheless, the possibility of a school bully growing up to lead the nominally free world is one that, for a good many people, makes the stomach lurch.

The bullies don't grow up to win. For a significant minority of us, that's one of life's fundamental principles: however horrendous school might be, when you grow up, the victims are vindicated and the bullies get what they deserve. That's the simple story that teenagers everywhere were clinging to many years before agony columnist Dan Savage created the "It Gets Better" campaign, designed to give hope to suicidal victims of homophobic bullying – the sort of bullying which Romney laughed off as "pranks". The message, reiterated on camera by a roll call of pop stars and politicians, including a stupendously awkward-looking David Cameron, is simple: things may be tough now, but keep your head down, don't rock the boat, and you'll be fine. Hang in there, kid.

As well as being an important and necessary anti-bullying campaign, "it gets better" is also an extremely familiar sentiment for left-wingers in Britain and America today. Many of us still cling to a sense that if we only wait long enough, fairness and equality will eventually come about. It's certainly one of the key principles on which Barack Obama was first elected: directionless hope, hope for change you can believe in, in the absence of change you can actually see. "It gets better" is an article of liberal faith in treacherous times: hang in there. Keep your head down. Weather the storm.

The trouble is that sometimes it doesn't get better. Sometimes, if you keep your head down, the bullies win. Sometimes they grow up to be rich win the Republican nomination. Sometimes poverty hits an 18-year high and millions lose their homes, jobs and healthcare while the rich get richer and the poor get angrier, and, in times like these, times of confusion and suffering, those who still vote flock towards politicians who look and sound like they want power and know what to do with it.

This year, Americans are facing the same choice that we in Britain faced in 2010: a choice between a candidate promising vague, mitigated change, and one who looks as if he's been bred in a special farm for future world leaders. Some liberal US commentators have taken Romney's healthy poll numbers as final evidence that the voting public has lost its collective wits. However, when millions of people decide that they will vote for an empty can of expensive spray tan if it happens to be wearing a red rosette, it's not because they're all stupid. It's about fear and frustration, neither of which is a respecter of intellect.

Hope can be hard to hang on to. In his forthcoming book Twilight of the Elites, MSNBC host Chris Hayes explains that for Barack Obama, who glided into the White House in the 2008 election on an air cushion of elation, both his victory and his political setbacks can be explained by "his ability to connect to our core sense of betrayal and inability to deliver us from it".

Hope, as Obama once put it, is indeed audacious, but it is also exhausting. After four years where the bold, hard changes necessary to create a truly fairer country have failed strikingly to materialise, Americans of all stripes are getting tired of hope, just as British people were tired after 13 years of watching the Labour Party kowtow to a neoliberal consensus that culminated in a catastrophic crash. That kind of hope starts to hurt, after a while. There was a time when the voting public believed in a better tomorrow. Now they'll settle for politicians who have the decency to screw them with the lights on. It's the sort of political climate where bullies thrive.

Bullies, however, have power only if nobody stands up to them. When you picture young Mitt Romney chopping off little John Lauber's hair, remember who the most important people are in that picture. They are the kids standing by and watching. In frightening, desperate times, the impulse to cede power to those who merely feel themselves deserving of it can be overwhelming. Even in a post-hope generation, all it takes is a few people to say no – but, so far, the top ranks of liberal politics on both sides of the pond have been a corridor of foot-shuffling silence.

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