Two buttons offering support for one of Bill Clinton's presidential runs made the rounds on social media over the weekend. The first shows the Confederate battle flag with the words "Clinton-Gore" superimposed.
The second goes a bit further, portraying Clinton and Gore in the gray uniforms of the Confederacy. It's currently for sale on eBay.
As all political debates on Twitter can be, each side in this one can be summarized easily. Conservatives offer the buttons as a sign that Democrats now calling for the removal of the flag from the state house grounds in South Carolina are being hypocritical, given their party's historic embrace of the banner. (It's an extension of the long-standing rhetorical point that comes up in debates over race: From Reconstruction through segregation, the South was strongly Democratic.) Liberals reply that the buttons show how symbols imbued with racist connotations have been — and continue to be — entrenched in American politics.
It's important to note that there is no indicator that these buttons were actually made and distributed by the actual Clinton-Gore campaign. The second, with its cut-out photos of the candidates, almost certainly isn't.
One indicator that it isn't official is that it lacks a union "bug," the little marker showing that a piece of campaign material was printed in a union shop. If you look at other Clinton-Gore buttons, nearly all — but not all — have a bug somewhere. The buttons below, from CampaignButtons-Etc.com, have their union bugs circled.
In the 1980s and 1990s, buttons played part of the role that Etsy, Zazzle and Cafepress play now. Buttonmakers were never hard to come by, and anyone who wanted to could make his or her own, offering whatever sentiment they wanted to. So just because these buttons exist doesn't mean they were sanctioned or approved by the campaign.
It also doesn't mean they weren't. When Clinton was first running in 1992, his geographic background was a key advantage. Since Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, the act that hastened the South's partisan flip, four Northern Democrats and one Southern Democrat had run for the presidency. Only the Southern one, Jimmy Carter, won — and he only won once. Clinton, a Southern governor of a state whose flag still alludes to its history in the Confederacy, needed to solidify support from nearby states to have a chance at unseating George H.W. Bush. He ended up winning Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee and Georgia. A button like the one at top wouldn't necessarily have hurt.
The politics then were less complicated than they are now. It's believable that Clinton and Gore might have had a Confederate button, though we don't know for sure that they did. What the reemergence of the buttons now shows, if nothing else, is that the history of the rebellious South continues to resonate and continues to evolve, year by year, as a component of American politics.