Eleventh Commandment

Eleventh Commandment

Ronald Reagan famously said that the “eleventh commandment” was, “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.”

The phrase was coined in the 1960s by Gaylord Parkinson, who was the state chairman of California Republicans at the time. Parkinson added, “Henceforth, if any Republican has a grievance against another, that grievance is not to be bared publicly.”

Reagan first talked about the “eleventh commandment” in 1966, when he was running to be governor of California. At the time, Reagan had just recently switched parties and his Republican opponents seized on that as a way to attack him. Some of them called him “temperamentally and emotionally upset” and hinted that his switch of parties “might indicate instability.” Through it all, Reagan said he didn’t believe in speaking ill of other Republicans. 

Parkinson apparently proposed the rule against Republicans attacking each other because he believed that it would keep Reagan’s opponent, San Francisco mayor Mayor George Christopher, from attacking Reagan; more generally, Parkinson wanted to achieve party unity ahead of the general election.

Reagan continued to invoke the “eleventh commandment” throughout his political career. After he became governor, Reagan also used his new position to advise other Republicans on what he saw as proper decorum. In 1968, for example, Reagan spoke up when George Romney challenged Richard Nixon to a debate presidential primary. Reagan said, “I don’t think that’s necessary. Whenever you do that, you return to the atmosphere of violating the 11th commandment, which we originated in California, that you should speak no ill of another Republican.”

Much later, Reagan referred to the rule in his autobiography, An American Life. Speaking of the eleventh commandment, he wrote, “It’s a rule I followed during that campaign, and I have ever since.”

In the decades since Reagan’s administration, journalists and pundits have periodically complained that Republicans don’t seem to be following Reagan’s eleventh commandment any more. In 2011, for example, the New York Times fretted that a recent Republican debate had “led to the biggest display yet of combativeness among candidates who often evoke Ronald Reagan, but did not heed his 11th commandment, not to speak ill of fellow Republicans.”

A few years later, in 2015, the Dayton Daily News lamented that the Republican presidential hopefuls were not living up to Reagan’s example. The newspaper wrote,

“The 11th commandment prevails, and that is, ‘Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican,'” Ronald Reagan said.  If these past few weeks are any indication …“Donald Trump is a narcissist and an egomaniac,” Bobby Jindal said. “Jeb Bush is a low-energy person,” Donald Trump said. “I think Donald Trump’s a disaster,” Rand Paul said on Fox News.

The Republican candidates Wednesday night won’t be in observance.”

Even after the 2016 election, some Republicans were lamenting that members of their own party were engaging in pointless Twitter wars with each other and refusing to work effectively with one another. The answer, one op-ed read, was a return to Reagan’s vision: “Republicans should take a look at Reagan’s speeches, read about him, and try to learn from a politician who brought a nation together in so many ways.”