The 11th Commandment of Republican Politics

Why It's Important to Play Nice in the Republican Presidential Primaries

Ronald Reagan
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The 11th commandment is an informal rule in the Republican Party mistakenly attributed to Presidential Ronald Reagan that discourages attacks on members of the party and encourages candidates to be kind to each other. The 11th commandment states: "Thou shalt not speak ill of any Republican."

The other thing about the 11th commandment: Nobody pays attention to it anymore.

The 11th commandment is not meant to discourage healthy debate over policy or political philosophy between Republican candidates for office. It is designed to prevent GOP candidates from launching into personal attacks that would damage the eventual nominee in his general-election contest with the Democratic opponent or preclude him from taking office.

In modern politics, the 11th commandment has failed to prevent Republicans candidates from attacking each other. A good example is the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, in which eventual nominee and President-elect Donald Trump routinely disparaged his opponents. Trump referred to Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio as "little Marco," U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz as "Lyin' Ted," and former Florida Jeb Bush as a "very low energy kind of guy."

The 11th commandment is dead, in other words.

Origin of 11th Commandment

The origin of the 11th commandment is most often credited to former Republican President Ronald Reagan. Though Reagan used the term many times to discourage infighting in the GOP, he did not come up with 11th commandment. The term was first used by Calfornia's Republican Party chairman, Gaylord B. Parkinson, before Reagan's first campaign for governor of that state in 1966. Parkinson had inherited a party that was deeply divided.

While Parkinson is believed to have first issued that commandment "Thou shalt not speak ill of any Republican," he added: "Henceforth, if any Republican has a grievance against another, that grievance is not to be bared publicly." The term 11th commandment is a reference to the original 10 commandments handed down by God on how humans should behave.

Reagan is often mistakenly given credit with coining the 11th commandment because he was a devout believer in it since first running for political office in California. Reagan wrote in the autobiography "An American Life:"

"The personal attacks against me during the primary finally became so heavy that the state Republican chairman, Gaylord Parkinson, postulated what he called the Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican. It's a rule I followed during that campaign and have ever since."

When Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976, he declined to attack his opponent. "I will not put aside the 11th commandment for anyone," Reagan said in announcing his candidacy.

11th Commandment Role in Campaigns

The 11th commandment itself has become a line of attack during Republican primaries. Republican candidates often accuse their intraparty rivals of violating the 11th commandment by running negative television ads or leveling misleading charges. In the 2012 Republican presidential contest, for example, Newt Gingrich accused a super PAC that was supporting front-runner Mitt Romney of violating the 11th commandment in the run-up to the Iowa Caucuses.

The super PAC, Restore Our Future, questioned Gingrich's record as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Gingrich responded on the campaign trail in Iowa by saying, "I believe in Reagan's 11th commandment." He then went on to criticize Romney, calling the former governor a "Massachusetts moderate," among other things.

Erosion of 11th Commandment

Some conservative thinkers have argued that most Republican candidates have forgotten about or simply choose to ignore the 11th commandment in modern politics. They believe the abandonment of the principle has undermined the Republican Party in elections.

In a tribute to Reagan following his death in 2004, U.S. Sen. Byron L. Dorgan said the 11th commandment "has been long forgotten, regrettably. I am afraid that today's politics have taken a turn for the worse. President Reagan was agressive in debate but always respectful. I believe he personified the notion that you can disagree without being disagreeable."

The 11th commandment was not intended to prohibit Republican candidates from engaging in reasonable debates over policy or pointing out differences between themselves and their rivals.

Reagan, for example, was unafraid of challenging his fellow Republicans over their policy decisions and political ideology. Reagan's interpretation of the 11th commandment was that the rule was meant to discourage personal attacks between Republican candidates. The line between a spirited conversation over policy and philosophical difference, though, and speaking ill of an opponent is often blurry.

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Murse, Tom. "The 11th Commandment of Republican Politics." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Murse, Tom. (2021, February 16). The 11th Commandment of Republican Politics. Retrieved from Murse, Tom. "The 11th Commandment of Republican Politics." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 1, 2022).