The perplexing momentum behind Newt Gingrich may have to do more with nostalgia than anything else.
Everyone is sure the momentum behind Newt Gingrich's recent endorsements and sudden rise in the polls won't last. He's scandalous, he's mean, he's broke. He's not Romney. He's not conservative enough. He's associated with that universally hated entity, Congress. Yet there's a perplexing amount of fervor surrounding the former Speaker of the House. Could it be that we just miss the '90s?
Culturally, the pining is in full force. People are celebrating the 20th anniversary of Thelma and Louise and Nevermind. The feminist punk movement Riot Grrrl is enjoying a revival. Beavis and Butthead is back on the air. Nickelodeon plays classics like Doug and Salute Your Shorts on their new programming block, "The 90s Are All That." Jane Pratt is back, too, and her fairy goddaughter, Tavi Gevinson, adores everything from Twin Peaks to Bikini Kill. Even your favorite 90s lesbians are dating. Some have argued that '90s nostalgia has defined a generation in need of an identity. I say it's a way to crawl back into the womb.
After all, the present is scary, and not just in terms of pop culture. The warm fuzzies for decades past stretch to politics, too. How many times did you hear a wistful liberal wish for another chance to vote for Clinton during the Bush years? Now Obama is letting us down, and Bill Clinton is solving problems all on his own. Let's be honest: If Bill was on the ticket, progressives would vote for him in a heartbeat.
Traditional conservatives are feeling it, too. For older people—the most powerful voting bloc of all—Gingrich hearkens back to a more innocent time for the GOP. Back then, the right's biggest concerns were the drug war and "family values," not terrorism, ballooning debt, a growing wealth gap and trillion-dollar wars. Don't Ask, Don't Tell had just gone into effect, and gay marriage had no chance of becoming law. For many, a vote for Gingrich is a vote to erase the messy cacophony of the last few years. To support Newt is to forget the Tea Party, the Mama Grizzlies, the opportunistic lionizing of minority candidates like Marco Rubio and Herman Cain. Romney may be part of the establishment, but he's a young, flip-flopping Mormon. Even Gingrich admits he's not the perfect candidate, but at least he's an old-school white guy a conservative can depend on.
Of course, all signs point to the likelihood that Gingrich's lead is temporary, mainly because everyone agrees he can't beat Obama. Once scrutinized, his ugly divorces and questionable alliances would bubble up to the surface. From far away, though, Gingrich doesn't seem so bad, especially to dismayed conservatives watching the primary circus unfold before their eyes. For the GOP, this nostalgia is par for the course. The heart of conservative politics is romanticizing the past, conserving all that was good and pure about our "traditional" society.
Unfortunately, Gingrich is on the wrong side of history. Cultural throwbacks are harmless, but rewinding the clock politically at a time of an economic crisis is troublesome, even for a party that hedges its bets on the glory of the past. Gingrich should feel free to bask in his 15 minutes of fame, but when it comes to the ballot box, nostalgia shouldn't be the motivation behind anybody's vote.