A Very Strange Election Year

We are in the midst of a very strange presidential election in which Republicans are acting like Democrats and Democrats are acting like Republicans.

Democratic presidential candidates have adopted and GOP candidates have forgotten one of the cardinal doctrines of modern Republican politics: the Eleventh Commandment,  which was vigorously promoted by Ronald Reagan, hence its popular nickname “the Reagan Rule.” In the rule, Reagan elegantly and simply summed up the basic doctrine of coalition politics with this humorous line:

  • “Thou shalt not speak ill of any Republican.”

In other words, do not attack, criticize, or fight with any other member of your party. It is obvious from news stories that Republicans have forgotten the rule, while Democrats have learned it well.

Donald Trump, the Republican front runner, recently viciously mocked one of his opponents, U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Trump has also criticized Arizona’s U.S. Senator John McCain’s war record.


Hillary and Bernie Learn from Reagan?

Now contrast Trump’s behavior with the two Democratic candidates. Front runner Hillary Clinton has refused to comment on challenger Bernie Sanders even though he’s done well in the polls. Sanders has refused to knock Hillary and even complimented her, although she holds a commanding lead.

Both Hillary and Bernie would have much to gain by engaging in vicious attacks upon each other. Bernie’s supporters would probably love it if he started bashing Hillary as a tool of Wall Street. News reports indicate that many of them share Rush Limbaugh’s opinion of Hillary. At the same time, a lot of Hillary’s elitist apologists would love to see her denounce Bernie as a dangerous crackpot or even a racist.

Bernie Channels Reagan

Yet neither candidate is doing that. Each is following the Reagan Rule and keeping his or her mouth shut. Bernie even took the Reagan Rule to a new level in Seattle on August 8, 2015, when a group of obnoxious protesters claiming to represent Black Lives Matter stormed onto the podium and took over his microphone.

The protesters then spent about 20 minutes delivering a diatribe that effectively branded Bernie and his supporters as racists. Yet Bernie stood there and took it, ignoring the protesters, who are presumably Democrats, and refusing to denounce them. He did so even though the crowd would have clearly cheered wildly had he denounced the protesters.

Bernie was willing to sit through the protest because he, like Reagan, understands that successful politics involves coalition building. Coalition building involves keeping the party together even if it displeases the mob.

Bernie realizes that he has a lot more to gain by reaching out to radical African Americans than by attacking them. He understands the damage that one YouTube clip of him arguing with a Black Lives Matter protester  could do to his reputation in the African-American community. By yielding the podium, Bernie effectively diffused the situation and won the debate, even if some pundits do not realize it.

Coalition building involves working with widely disparate groups of people—even people one finds obnoxious—to win. Reagan knew it well, and so do today’s Democrats.

Coalition Building Lessons from Reagan and FDR

Reagan effectively formed a coalition of the Religious Right, former Southern Democrats, libertarians, Big Business, ethnic Blue Collar Reagan Democrats, and conservative intellectuals. The coalition formed the basis for a Republican Party that has dominated American politics for nearly 40 years.


Reagan’s coalition contained people who had vast differences—libertarians and the Religious Right for example—but it worked because they agreed to put aside their differences. Likewise, Franklin D. Roosevelt (the politician Reagan modeled himself after) built a coalition that included segregationist Southern Democrats, blacks, left-wing (sometimes Marxist) intellectuals, and big-city political machines.

The Democrats seem to have adopted the Reagan Rule and are using it to build a new political coalition. Republicans, on the other hand, intend to be intent on destroying each other.

If Democrats can build a new political coalition of dissatisfied working and middle class whites, African Americans, Latinos, and left-wing intellectuals, they could dominate American politics for the next generation. Such a coalition will require old school political discipline, which both Bernie and Hillary seem to possess, and common sense—a commodity sorely lacking in modern politics.

Why Democrats Can Follow the Reagan Rule and Republicans Cannot

The big question in American politics now is whether Republicans can put together such a coalition. It seems doubtful given the lack of consensus, leadership, and even a coherent message in the party.

One reason why Bernie and Hillary can follow the Reagan Rule is that they agree on most of the basic issues. Their disagreement is more of tactics than of goals. Both candidates favor unions, gay rights, abortion, amnesty for illegal immigrants, national health insurance, and federally-funded college tuition.

Republicans, on the other hand, currently have vast and unresolved ideological differences, which feeds the disputes within their party. Rand Paul favors legalization or decriminalization of drugs, while New Jersey Governor Chris Christie wants to expand the war on drugs by using federal law enforcement to shut down legalized marijuana businesses in Colorado. Donald Trump wants to deport illegal immigrants, while former Florida Governor Jeb Bush seems to favor amnesty.

There can obviously be no agreement between such extremes, only conflict. A rule like the 11th Commandment can only work when the coalition members at least agree on something. If Republicans ever want to reclaim the Reagan Rule, they need to start agreeing on something or at least learn how to disagree.