Download your holiday guide to civility from Mark Shields and David Brooks


Download the guide to civility. It’s a handsome addition to any holiday table or potential political battleground.

It’s the holidays, and that means one thing: It’s time for uncomfortable political discussions with your distant relatives.

Uncle George founded the tea party chapter in Tulsa. Cousin Minnie just switched to a completely hemp-based diet. Sparks will fly. To bring peace across the land this holiday season, we asked Mark Shields and David Brooks to share their strategies for keeping things civil at the family dinner table. We baked Mark and David’s sage wisdom into a handy holiday place mat, which you can print and share with your most uncivil family members.

Here’s what our champions of civility had to say.

Mark and David’s advice for keeping the peace

David Brooks: My first tip: if you have a deep-down disagreement about how you were treated at your 13th birthday party, deal with it honestly and don’t submerge it into a political fight. Most family political debates are fought because of deeper family issues. Second, the key to a civil political debate is to consider the likelihood that you’re wrong.

Mark Shields: Accept the rule that you can pick friends but you can’t pick your relatives. I’d avoid toxic topics, no matter how tempting and provocative they may be. Avoid topics that are just depressing and would dampen the holiday spirit. Like the 2014 election if you’re a Democrat. The Cheney family feud may be toxic in some families, but in others it would help them feel cohesive. The biggest rule of civility is avoiding those subjects that you know are just gonna lead to intense and intemperate disagreements.

How to end a political battle if it gets out of hand

David Brooks: There’s a truism that you should never go to sleep mad. But I’m a believer that sometimes you just need to go to sleep. Get a good night’s sleep and have a conversation about something else the next day. Politics is not that important.

Mark Shields: A false fire alarm is always helpful. Or announcing that the turkey is ready, even if it isn’t. The fire alarm or smoke alarm, either one. Other than that, just turn to Uncle Eugene who has a theory that left-handed Presbyterians are taking over the Federal Reserve and say “You’re absolutely right! I never thought of that before but that’s right.”

How to end an argument about the economy

David Brooks: I think the actions of one administration or another has a very minor effect on the economy. The thing driving the economy is bigger than politics or government. They’re just structural realities having to do with the way technology is evolving, the way skills are evolving.

Mark Shields: Point out that the stock market has doubled since Barack Obama has been in office. You can’t argue with that fact: It has doubled. Usually the person complaining is the one with the most in the stock market. At the same time, it’s unacceptable that we have fewer jobs than five years ago. Anyone who boasts about a good economy is less than shortsighted.

How to end an argument about health care reform

David Brooks: Let’s start with story about a rabbi who came to the synagogue with two pieces of paper in his pocket. One said the world was created for me and the other said I am nothing but dust and ashes. And the reason the rabbi carried those papers is they were both equally true. So when dealing with health care or any other issue, it’s normal to have two opposing ideas be equally true. In Obamacare, it would cover millions of new people and it’s also true that the website doesn’t work well and it may hurt the economy. So, the big issues are always about balance.

Mark Shields: It’s always great to introduce new information. I really don’t know that persuasion on this topic is possible at this time. I might be tempted to say “Isn’t it interesting that after the terrible tragedy in the Philippines, China originally contributed less relief money than Ikea or Coca Cola?” In other words, think of a creative way to switch the topic.

What do you do when someone says the president hasn’t proven he’s a U.S. citizen?

David Brooks: Sometimes there are just facts. He is a U.S. citizen. Then you throw the turkey at them.

Mark Shields: Anybody who brings up questions about where the president was born has proved his or her lack of civility. This is my kicker line: the government of Kenya will formally announce at a press conference that after exhaustive research they have determined that Obama was born in Honolulu. That’s the kind of fall it’s been for the government.

Mark Shields offers this bonus wisdom on maintaining friendly family relations. Most of these tips were most relevant for Thanksgiving, 2013, but there’s some sage wisdom buried between the endzones:

It’s a time to become a football fan. The NFL has done a great favor to the peacefulness of American family gatherings by scheduling a game between the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers beginning at 12:30 p.m. EST on Fox. As soon as that’s over, CBS has the Dallas Cowboys against the Oakland Raiders. If you haven’t had enough — although Sally Quinn once made the observation that any man who watches three football games in a row is probably brain dead, and that’s probably true — there’s an 8:30 p.m. game. As long as there’s a football game, it gives us something to talk about that lowers the temperature in the room.

My other suggestion: It’s good to ask non-political quizzes to get the conversation going.

Here’s a question to kick things off. What are the only four American colleges or universities to have produced both a President of the United States and a quarterback who has won the Super Bowl? (There are 44 U.S. presidents and 30 winning quarterbacks and there are more than 14,000 U.S. colleges and universities.)

Answer: Stanford University produced Hoover and two Super Bowl quarterbacks, John Elway and Jim Plunkett, who won two as well. The University of Michigan produced Gerald Ford, as well as Tom Brady of the New England Patriots. The third school is the United States Naval Academy, from which Jimmy Carter and the Dallas Cowboys’ Roger Staubach both graduated. Finally — and no one ever gets this one — there’s Miami University of Ohio, which claims Benjamin Harrison and Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The other question I use that I think everybody can play is: What are the smallest (in population) state capital cities in the U.S.?

Answer: Montpelier, Vt., which is home to fewer than 8,000 people; Pierre, S.D., with fewer than 14,000; and Augusta, Maine. And I’ve been to all three.

Interviews by Bridget Bowman

Find the original Thanksgiving edition of the holiday guide here: