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Policy Debate: What You Need to Know

Updated on February 23, 2011

The basics of what you need to know to be successful at Policy Debate. Learn about the rules, historical resolutions, how to be prepared, cross-examination, things your judge does not want to hear, how to make witty remarks, etc. This information can help improve any Policy Debater's skills to win rounds!

Policy Debate: Overview

Policy is a form of research-based debate that pits teams of two against each other for lengthy, fast-paced matches about U.S. government policy. Unlike other debate categories, policy emphasizes research and preparation virtually above all else, and policy debaters are encouraged to speak rapidly – so rapidly, in fact, that it is sometimes difficult for non-debaters to understand them.

To allow debaters ample time to prepare, the National Federation of State High School Associations releases new policy topics only once a year, in early January. These resolutions take the form of something the U.S. federal government should or should not do, like “the United States federal government should substantially increase public health services for mental health care in the United States” or “the United States federal government should substantially increase alternative energy incentives in the United States.”

Once debaters have received the resolution, they begin researching the topic and formulating an affirmative “plan” – the concrete, specific interpretation of the resolution – that they will debate at tournaments. They must also craft contentions, or central arguments, that deal with the stock issues of solvency, inherency and harms.

Because debaters are not pre-assigned the affirmative or negative side, and may have to switch sides from round to round, it is important that they understand all of the angles and interpretations of the resolution extremely well. Research can take months, and debaters must carefully document all of it – in fact, it’s not unusual to see teams wheel tubs of evidence into tournaments.

After all that research and preparation, however, debaters have only eight speeches and four cross-examination periods in which to make their case. Naturally, that isn’t easy to do – prompting some debaters to speak up to or well over 300 words per minute in tournament rounds.

Policy Debate: Structure and Rules

There are four debaters in a policy round and each makes two speeches, for a total of eight speeches. Each debater also has a chance to cross-examine his opponent, which adds an additional four periods to the round.

As in other forms of debate, there are two types of speeches: constructives (8 mins.) and rebuttals (5 mins.). Both teams are essentially on the offensive in the constructive speeches, which lay out the plan and explain the contentions and stock issues. In the rebuttals, both teams attempt to diffuse and disprove their opponent’s arguments while simultaneously strengthening their own. New evidence is regularly introduced in rebuttals, though new arguments are discouraged.

Cross-examinations are also not unique to policy debate, though they do take on an extra significance in this category. During this three minute period, the most recent speaker is questioned by one of his opponents. Five minute preparation periods are also allowed before each speech.

In sum, then, a policy round consists of the First Affirmative Constructive (1AC), Cross-examination of First Affirmative, First Negative Constructive (1NC), Cross-examination of First Negative, Second Affirmative Constructive (2AC), Cross-examination of Second Affirmative, Second Negative Constructive (2NC), Cross-examination of Second Negative, First Negative Rebuttal (1NR), First Affirmative Rebuttal (1AR), Second Negative Rebuttal (2NR) and Second Affirmative Rebuttal (2AR).

Such rounds take place at two-day policy tournaments, which typically consist of both regular policy rounds and individual speech events. The first day of a tournament is devoted to preliminary rounds. On the second day, teams with a strong win-loss record advance or “break” to out-rounds. Awards are given not only to these teams, but to individual speakers who performed well in speech events, and to the schools with the best records overall.

Policy Debate: Historical Resolutions


Resolved: That the federal government should own and operate the railroads.


Resolved: That the power of the federal government should be increased.


Resolved: That every able-bodied male citizen in the United States should be required to have one year of full-time military training before attaining the present draft age.


Resolved: That a federal world government should be established.


Resolved: That the United States should join in reconstituting the League of Nations.


Resolved: That the legal voting age should be reduced to eighteen years.


Resolved: That ever able-bodied male citizen of the United States should have one year of full time military training before attaining age 24.


Resolved: That the federal government should provide a system of complete Medical care available to all citizens at public expense.


Resolved: That the federal government should require arbitration of labor disputes in all basic industries.


Resolved: That a federal world government should be established.


Resolved: That the President of the United States should be elected by the direct vote of the people.


Resolved: That the American people should reject the Welfare state.


Resolved: That all American citizens should be subject to conscription for essential service in time of war.


Resolved: That the Atlantic pact nations should form a federal union.


Resolved: That the President of the United States should be elected by the direct vote of the people.


Resolved: That the federal government should initiate a policy of free trade among nations friendly to the United States.


Resolved: That the government subsidies should be granted according to need to high school graduates who qualify for additional training.


Resolved: That the federal government should sustain the prices of major agricultural products at not less than 90% of parity.


Resolved: That the United States foreign aid should be substantially increased.


Resolved: That the United States should adopt the essential feature of the British system of education.


Resolved: That the federal government should substantially increase its regulation of labor unions.


Resolved: That the United Nations should be significantly strengthened.


Resolved: That the federal government should equalize educational opportunity by means of grants to the states for public elementary and secondary education.


Resolved: That the United States should promote a Common Market for the western hemisphere.


Resolved: That Social Security benefits should be extended to include complete medical care.


Resolved: That nuclear weapons should be controlled by an international organization.


Resolved: That the federal government should adopt a program of compulsory arbitration in labor-management disputes in basic industries.


Resolved: That the foreign aid program of the United States should be limited to non-military assistance.


Resolved: That Congress should establish uniform regulations to control criminal investigation procedures.


Resolved: That the United States should establish a system of compulsory service by all citizens.


Resolved: That Congress should prohibit unilateral United States military intervention in foreign countries.


Resolved: That the federal government should establish, finance, and administer programs to control air and/or water pollution in the United States.


Resolved: That the jury system in the United States should be significantly changed.


Resolved: That governmental financial support for all public and secondary education in the United States be provided exclusively by the federal government.


Resolved: That the federal government should guarantee a minimum annual income to each family unit.


Resolved: That the United States should significantly change the method of selection of presidential and vice-presidential candidates.


Resolved: That the development and allocation of scarce world resources should be controlled by an international organization.


Resolved: That a comprehensive program of penal reform should be adopted throughout the United States.


Resolved: That the federal government should establish a comprehensive program to regulate the health care in the United States.


Resolved: What should be the energy policy of the United States.


Resolved: That the United States should significantly change its foreign trade policies.


Resolved: That the federal government should initiate and enforce safety guarantees on consumer goods.


Resolved: That the federal government should establish minimum educational standards for elementary and secondary schools in the United States.


Resolved: That the United States should significantly curtail its arms sales to other countries.


Resolved: That the United States should establish uniform rules governing the procedure of all criminal courts in the nation.


Resolved: That the federal government should provide employment for all employable U.S. Citizens living in poverty.


Resolved: That the federal government should establish a comprehensive national policy to protect the quality of water in the United States.


Resolved: That the federal government should implement a comprehensive long-term agricultural policy in the United States.


Resolved: That the United States government should adopt a policy to increase political stability in Latin America.


Resolved: That the federal government should implement a comprehensive program to guarantee retirement security for United States citizens over age 65.


Resolved: That the federal government should adopt a nationwide policy to decrease overcrowding in prisons and jails in the United States.


Resolved: that the United States Government should significantly increase space exploration beyond Earth’s mesosphere.


Resolved: That the federal government should significantly increase social services to homeless individuals in the United States.


Resolved: That the United States government should reduce worldwide pollution through its trade and/or aid policies.


Resolved: That the federal government should guarantee comprehensive national health insurance to all United States citizens.


Resolved: That the United States government should substantially strengthen regulation of immigration to the United States.


Resolved: That the United States government should substantially change its foreign policy toward the People’s Republic of China.


Resolved: That the federal government should establish a program to substantially reduce juvenile crime in the United States.


Resolved: That the federal government should establish a policy to substantially increase renewable energy use in the United States.


Resolved: That the United States should substantially change its foreign policy toward Russia.


Resolved: That the federal government should establish an education policy to significantly increase academic achievement in secondary schools in the United States.


Resolved: That the United States federal government should significantly increase protection of privacy in the United States in one or more of the following areas: employment, medical records, consumer information, search and seizure.


Resolved: That the United States federal government should establish a foreign policy significantly limiting the use of weapons of mass destruction.


Resolved: That the United States federal government should substantially increase public health services for mental health care in the United States.


Resolved: That the United States federal government should establish an ocean policy substantially increasing protection of marine natural resources.


Resolved: That the United States federal government should establish a foreign policy substantially increasing its support of United Nations peacekeeping operations.


Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially decrease its authority either to detain without charge or to search without probable cause.


Resolved: The United States federal government should establish a policy substantially increasing the number of persons serving in one or more of the following national service programs: AmeriCorps, Citizen Corps, Senior Corps, Peace Corps, Learn and Serve America, Armed Forces.


Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its public health assistance to Sub-Saharan Africa.


Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase alternative energy incentives in the United States.


Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase social services for persons living in poverty in the United States.

Getting Better at Policy Debate

Probably the most common question that every novice policy debater at some point in time decides to ask is a very, very simple one: “How can I get better at debate?” Well, the answer is actually quite simple. There are two paths you can take to improve at debate.

1) Watch a varsity debate

2) Debate

Anticlimactic? Perhaps. But the truth is, there’s no secret serum that will magically turn you into a wunderkind ready to collect multiple ToC bids. Nor are there any magical debate shenanigans that open up new unexplored pathways to success.

Watching Debates

Observing debates - especially seasoned varsity debaters - is beneficial in a number of ways.

First, it allows you to get a good grasp of what an excellent debater looks like. Keep in mind that your goal should not be to become a clone of another debater. Each person has their own personal set of individual traits and qualities, which makes trying to emulate someone else patently unauthentic. However, watching good debaters at work allows you to figure out why good debaters are classified as such. You will notice the subtle characteristics in their speeches that set them apart, something that can be acquired only through direct observation.

Secondly, it gives you exposure to new arguments and the way in which those arguments are run. If you have not encountered a kritik before, a good way to learn about them is to watch a capitalism debate. Observing how experienced debaters both run and answer specific arguments gives you insights into those arguments and allows you to more effective understand those arguments. It will also give you a better grounding in the theory surrounding new arguments. And, even if you don’t comprehend new arguments initially, there is nothing better than asking the debaters themselves to explain the arguments. Most debaters will be more than willing to share their knowledge, even if they are from a different school, so don’t be intimidated to ask!


This is going to be an incredibly simple explanation - debating makes you a better debater because you actually experience the round first-hand. There is only so much that learning about different arguments will do for you. Until you have actual hands-on experience that involves engaging the arguments you learn about, you won’t get better. Practical application of debate skills occurs first and foremost in actual debate rounds. Even if you struggle, at the end of the round, you will understand why you struggled, and you will be able to correct your mistakes for the next round.

As a novice, the level of improvement you will see in your skills is directly proportional to the number of rounds you participate in. In other words, the more the merrier. Take every opportunity you possibly can to debate - attend all your practices and go to as many tournaments as you can. Only then can you acquire the necessary skills to become a good debater.

When I was a novice, I only attended three tournaments, and I didn’t do many practice rounds. As a result, I did not substantially improve from the beginning of my freshman year to the end of it. However, if you were to contrast that with my senior year, where I attended no fewer than fourteen tournaments, you would find that from the first round of my first tournament to the very last round of my career at NFL Nationals, I gained so much skill and expertise that I had probably become literally twice as good.

Debate! Watch debates! Debate some more! There is a whole world of opportunities out there waiting for you, and all you have to do is participate as much as possible. It’s really that simple.

Five Steps for Tournament Preparation

It's a Friday afternoon, and you've just gotten out of school. You have an entire weekend free in front of you; and next weekend you will be jetting off to the biggest tournament of the year. If you're a mediocre debater, you will choose not to spend extra time preparing for this tournament. If you're a good debater, you'll have fun on the weekend and start your work on the following Monday, but you might find yourself pressed for time as the week wears on. If you plan on actually winning the tournament, you will have already started prepping by the time the school bell rings for the final time on Friday, and you will be prepared to utterly dominate your competition within seven days.

Yes, folks, there's a proven correlation between pre-tournament preparation and success in debate. Those who put in the extra effort are rewarded by their results. So what can you do during the week before a tournament to get better? Here are five pieces of advice.

1. Get ahead on your schoolwork. I'm serious. If you've got assignments due the day you get back from a long weekend of debate, that's the last thing that needs to be weighing on your mind during the tournament. The sooner you can get your papers and studying out of the way, the better, even if it involves an opportunity cost of not being able to do as much debate work. You don't get a grade for winning a tournament - you will feel the consequences if you needlessly bomb a test, however.

I've found that many teachers are also quite flexible when it comes to assignments and testing dates. When I went to Catholic Nationals last year over Memorial Day, I had to deal with the fact that I would have multiple final exams the week I came back. Instead of trying to go into those finals without studying, I simply asked to take them a week early, which worked out fine.

2. Start cutting updates. Good policy debaters don't rely on the same files they cut in August or September. They constantly update their arsenal of arguments with the latest information, filling up their tubs with evidence that assumes current conditions. This extends far beyond just cutting new politics shells. It encompasses work on your case, updating 2AC blocks to reflect arguments you heard at the previous tournament, writing answers to arguments that were made against your common 1NC off-case strategies, and updating disadvantage uniqueness and adjusting link stories accordingly. Do not be the team that does no updates and is thoroughly embarrassed when their outdated evidence doesn’t even come close to resembling the status quo.

3. Locate a field report of teams and prioritize work accordingly. Hopefully, you debate in a region where the flow of information is open and relatively fluid. If so, you should have a fairly strong indication of what cases are being run, and what generic off-case strategies to expect. Great debaters will not only gather intelligence, they will act on it. If they know a team runs a certain case, they will devote work to fleshing out specific answers to that case.

You should always focus on preparing for the best teams first. If you are a good debater, you can probably beat teams who are relatively unskilled and/or did not do anything to prepare. Your real test will come in rounds where you are evenly or over-matched with your opponents. These are the teams you will hit in elimination rounds, and you need to be ready for them.

4. Know your evidence. The best policy debate teams have read and highlighted every card in their tub before ever walking into a tournament round. Why is this beneficial? Being familiar with your evidence before you need to use it allows you to be much quicker on your feet. You’ll already be familiar with the warrants of the cards, making cross-examination and rebuttal evidence comparison infinitely easier. Plus, highlighting your evidence means your speeches will be more efficient, which in turns allows you to make a greater number of smart arguments. It’s just a good idea, and you should be doing this almost every week, even if you don’t have any upcoming tournaments.

5. Double your number of practice rounds. However many practice rounds you usually have in a given week, you should plan on doubling or even tripling that number. Why? Not only do you need to cut updates, you also need to be practicing putting those updates to use. The only way to do that is through rounds against your teammates. They don’t even have to be complete rounds - you can just skip straight to a certain part of the debate to be more efficient with your time.

Remember - the best teams are the ones that put in seven days of work or more. Waiting until Friday to start on your updates is a recipe for disaster - you will simply run out time. It has happened to me before, and I have actually lost a round or two before as a direct result of that. Preparation is the key to success, and I hope you find it within yourself to unlock it.

An Outline for Responding to a Counterplan

Not too long ago I was given the best advice I've ever heard received on how to respond to a Counterplan: See SPOT run.

S - Solvency Deficit

P - Permutations

O - Offense

T - Theory

A simple saying to remember the blanks you should fill in when approaching attacking a CP, regardless of the type.

Solvency Deficit - Here, it is advisable to weigh the affirmative plan against the Counterplan by demonstrating where it fails. You can do this in several different ways: from the ever basic "they fail to demonstrate how they capture the advantages of plan and here's why they don't" to Counterplan takes longer and the harms are a time-sensitive issue to the Counterplan is only a temporary fix and could be reversed back to the SQ (this is one of my favorite arguments to Executive Order CP) to the CP does not solve completely for whatever reason.

Permutations - For those of you who are only beginning your debate carriers, Perms are a wonderful tool to demonstrate to the judge that hypothetically the two plans could happen at the same time and the negative fails to prove why you as the aff should be rejected, but merely that they should be accepted. This can be as simple "do both" to "do one and then the other" or "parts of both" (of course worded more formally). A word to the more experienced be careful about how you phrase your permutations and (though it's a personal preference of mine and your welcome to do otherwise) precede any perm(s) you may make as "tests of advocacies" and not you change which plan text you want to go for in the 2AC.

Offense - Quite simply any turns/disadvantages you can put on the CP that the affirmative doesn't link back into. This can be difficult with counterplans like Plan-Inclusive Counterplans (or PICs) but that is where we come to the "T" which in this case refers to Theory rather than Topicality.

Theory - Any demonstration as to why the negative is cutting you out of education, prep time, arguments, real-world analysis you should throw out there. They can be simple like if it is a topical CP and you argue the basic (albeit mildly novi) "neg is affirming the resolution which means we're both saying the resolution is true so you minds well vote for the affirmative team". Or you can attack the status of the Counterplan ie Conditional (they can drop the CP at any point in the round without reason), Unconditional (it will stay in the round for its duration) or Dispositional (if you as the affirmative places any offensive or theoretical reason to reject the CP, the negative reserves the right to drop the argument).

In the mean time, good luck!

Preferences In Policy Debate

When you’re heading into a round of policy debate or CX, your judge’s preferences might be the last thing on your mind. But paying attention to special requests from the person in charge of your score takes minimal effort and can pay off when it comes down to scoring.

You will ultimately be the one to decide how you conduct yourself during a round, not your judge. And debating guidelines from the National Forensics League state that a judge should not penalize a debating team if its style, either in case construction or delivery, differs from that which the judge personally prefers.

Judges are expected to give scores based on effectiveness, not their personal ideas of how debating should be pursued. If you have a valid case, a detailed analysis of the subject, and you back up your arguments with sufficient evidence, you are already well-prepared for your next round. But keep in mind that effectiveness of delivery is also considered part of the judging criteria, which includes all aspects of oral presentation. Many debate judges do not take kindly to competitors who ignore their preferences, so the best thing to do if you don’t plan on listening to the response is to avoid asking the question.

Consider this scenario: You’ve just finished getting settled into the room with your debate partner. Your legal pad and pencil are ready, your laptop is fired up and ready to go, your notes are spread out over your desk and your partner is making sure everything else is in order. You walk up to the judge and ask, “Before we begin, do you have any preferences?” The judge responds by saying, “I’d prefer that you don’t look at your opponents during cross examination. Either address me or pick a spot on the back wall or something; just don’t look at each other.” You nod and smile, and then start messing with your timer. Later in the round, it’s time for CX, and you have come up with a strong set of questions for your opponent. Grinning, you look at your opponent each time you ask a question. Your opponent isn’t returning your gaze, which you take as a sign that you have defeated the other team with your brilliant CX skills.

Disregarding judges’ preferences in such a way can be detrimental to your score, especially if your opponent is responding appropriately to the request. Adhering to these unwritten rules might not relate directly to your research or preparation, but it is still considered an important part of the presentation for many judges.

A few things you should always do, no matter what your judge’s preferences entail:

1. Enunciate. WPM is an important aspect of both policy debate and LD debate, so many competitors just try to speak as swiftly as possible. If your judge doesn’t have a problem with speed, that’s fine, but you should always work hard to ensure that the judge can understand what you are saying.

2. Do your research. Having a thorough knowledge of the subject you are discussing is crucial in CX because you need to have a firm grasp of both the affirmative and negative sides of the argument to be able to anticipate your opponents’ next moves. Having up-to-date research is also helpful – if your most timely card is from 1999, you’re going to have a real problem in competition.

3. Work with your partner. The beauty of CX and other partner events is that both partners have unique talents to offer. Find out what you and your counterpart are good at, and use those attributes to your advantage during a debate.

When it comes to preferences, some debaters ask this question because they want to find out whether their judge is experienced or inexperienced; others will do it because they are legitimately interested in what the judge will and will not tolerate during a round. Either way, if you don’t intend to keep the judge’s requests in mind during the debate, don’t bother asking.

Evidence - What it is and How to Procure it

“Where does evidence come from? Shockingly, it doesn’t come from the evidence stork, it doesn’t come from the evidence factory. There’s no big secret to producing evidence – it’s a process that literally anyone can learn. All you need is practice.”

- Adam Symonds, Debate Coach, Arizona State University

When I was a freshman, I remember being completely lost because I did not know how to cut evidence. Even worse, I did not know where to find evidence. This was highly detrimental to my development as a debater - being able to procure and cut evidence is critical to your understanding of the arguments you run.

What is evidence?

Evidence consists of an excerpt of any published work that you present in order to support an argument.

Mind-bogglingly simple, isn’t it? Evidence can be a news article you cut from the New York Times. Evidence can be a section of a peer-reviewed paper found in a law periodical. Evidence can even come from Joe Schmoe’s random blog. If you can find an externally sourced (i.e. you didn’t write it) work that is available in any written media format, it theoretically constitutes evidence.

Joe Schmoe’s blog, however, leads me to my next point:

What is bad evidence?

No, just because you can find a published work that says something you like does not mean you should automatically use it. Bad evidence does exist and you need to be able to avoid it by engaging in the process of quality control. Here are some things you should always avoid when searching for cards:

- Unqualified authors: this is probably the number one source of bad cards you should look to avoid. Joe Schmoe might say some pretty cool things, but if he has no relevant field experience or journalistic credentials, it’s probably best to avoid him. You should also avoid using anonymous sources for the same reason, unless they publish under the umbrella of a larger (relevant) organization, such as a think tank.

- Blogs/forums/comments sections: this ties in with the above. The vast majority of blogs and public discussion forums do not make for good evidence simply because they are written by common people with little to no expertise on the subject they write about - in today’s virtual age, literally anyone with computer access can start up their own blog and start firing uneducated opinions away. There are some exceptions, of course - blogs written by topical experts on a specific subject are certainly a good source of evidence.

- Poorly-warranted evidence: basically, you should not use evidence that contains many claims but does not back those claims up with reasoning. An article that asserts that the world will end in 2012 but fails to offer any warrants to support that statement probably will not win many debates. Preemptively avoiding such materials in your initial search for evidence allows you avoid using bad cards.

What is good evidence?

Simply put, good evidence is well-written, highly-warranted material found in legitimate publications by qualified authors.

- Well-written: the material is understandable, fluidly conveyed and avoids the use of field-specific jargon.

- Highly-warranted: the material does not stop at making claims, but goes on to isolate specific reasoning and analysis that supports those claims.

- Legitimate publications: ranked in terms of quality, these include books, peer-reviewed scholarly journals, government documents, online journals, major newspapers and media outlets, expert-written blogs.

Where can I find good evidence?

Well, now that we know that legitimate publications contain good evidence, let’s focus on how we can narrow down our search to find such publications.

Starting at the broadest levels of the hierarchy, you can generally divide publications into two categories - print and digital. We no longer live in an age where debaters go into libraries and transcribe excerpts from books onto 3x5 index cards. Limiting yourself exclusively to scanning books and cutting/pasting the pages is rather foolish. There will be many instances in which this is appropriate, but it is important to broaden your horizons.

The Internet is the number one source of evidence, period. The availability, accessibility, and convenience of the digital medium has made it easier than ever before to obtain and compile evidence than ever before.

Google is almost always the first place you should be heading to when searching for evidence. Some tips:

- When using Google, you should try to narrow down your searches by using specific keywords and specifying certain date ranges.

- You can also increase the number of high quality sources by using the Google Scholar function, thereby automatically eliminating the chaff.

- Similarly, searching Google Books will allow you limited access to print publications; since you can’t copy or paste text, take screenshots and then paste those screenshots to a word document.

- If you are looking for disadvantage uniqueness, Google News is a fantastic news aggregator and can yield thousands of articles on any given topic in current events. You can also set up Google News Alerts for specific topics; doing so will have Google automatically email you with new articles and updates on specific keywords, which is very handy for hassle-free disad updates.

- Another good tip is to search by file type - narrowing your searches to .doc and .pdf is a good idea as they tend to bring up a lot of well-warranted reports from various organizations.

Besides Google, you should try to search any online periodicals and databases that you might have available to you. Ask your school librarian and see if you have access to any, and be sure to take note of them. Also, find a nearby college or university and see if they offer public access to their print and online materials. Often times such institutions will do this in some limited form or another, and it is an extremely valuable way to broaden the number of publications available to you.

If you don’t have any luck finding access to databases, the next best thing is to find an alumnus of your program who can provide access for you. I do this for my old high school - as a UCLA student, I have access to a mind-boggling number of periodicals as well as (literally) millions of volumes available in the University of California system. From time to time my old debaters will send me requests for subscription-based online articles and journals, and I am only too happy to download them for free and send them their way.

Databases and periodicals rock because they contain very high-quality evidence. Articles tend to be scholarly and peer-reviewed in nature and are written by experts in their fields. Needless to say, it is advantageous to have such resources at your disposal.

That should provide a fairly good idea of where you need to begin when researching the topic for evidence. Remember, the goal is to aim for procuring quality, well-warranted digital materials. If you have any further questions, be sure to post a comment on this page. Good luck!

Cross-Examination: Using Closed-Ended Questions

The art of cross-examination is probably one of the most under-appreciated aspects of policy debate. It is the only opportunity you have to directly interact with your opponent, yet a majority of debaters do not know how to optimally utilize their three minutes. Not only do most debaters fail to ask the right questions, they also neglect to phrase their questions strategically. Today's blog will deal with the latter question.

What do I mean by phrasing a question? Consider the following choices:

A. How much does your plan cost?

B. Your plan costs $50 million, correct?

Which of these two is the correct phrasing of the question?

The answer is B. Let's discuss why.

Option A is what is known as an open-ended question. An open-ended question is exactly what it sounds like - something your opponent can answer in almost any fashion he or she wishes to do so in. An open ended question not only allows your opponent to give any answer he or she likes, it also allows them to spend as much time and detail as they would like in answering the question.

When you ask an open-ended question, what you have done is you have “opened the door” for your opponent - they are not answering your question, they are explaining why their side of the story is correct to the judge. Skilled debaters are excellent at abusing this - they can turn an innocent question like "how much does the plan cost" into a convincing 45 second narrative that spins the story in such a way as to deflect the intent of the original question while simultaneously making their case sound much more awesome.

On the other hand, Option B is a closed ended question. A closed-ended question is one that has a limited number of possible responses “Your plan costs one $50 million, correct?” is a closed-ended question - there are only two possible responses. The answer is either yes or no. There is no middle ground to choose from. The answer is not "$50 million dollars, but that's okay because our funding mechanism....blah blah blah..." It's a yes or no question.

Why are closed-ended questions beneficial? There are a few reasons. They let you control the flow of the cross-examination. It ensures that you are the one doing most of the talking - instead of your opponent babbling on, you get to aggressively dictate the terms of the exchange and shape it in ways that benefit you. Plus, you won’t need to interrupt your opponent. You can also make them sound stupid because they won’t be able to justify any of their answers. That allows you to set the stage for your next speech.

Now of course, if you're being cross-examined, you can try to weasel your way out of closed-ended questions. The best way to do this is by referencing evidence.

Them: "Your plan costs $50 million, correct?"

You: Our Smith 2009 evidence indicates that the ultimate budgetary savings would work out to about half a billion dollars, so even though the plan costs $50 million it would basically pay for itself.

If you are the cross-examiner, you must be aggressive when you deal with this. Don't allow them to finish - cut them off as soon as they get a few words into their answer. Be forceful, but don't be rude. Raise your hand is cue a stop and say "no, no, no - it's a yes or no answer." Don't yell or scream, because judges absolutely will not tolerate that.

Winning the Debate in the 2NR - Forming a Coherent Strategy

(Please note - this entry is best served to those who debate circuit style. It is not necessarily appropriate for lay style debate)

The second negative rebuttal is considered to be one of the hardest and most important speeches in debate. Time and time again, you will find that the 2NR is often the most decisive speech in the round. In close debates, it can and will serve as the difference between a win or a loss. In a debate the negative is winning, it is the 2NR’s opportunity to write the judge’s ballot.

First, we must consider the penultimate goal of the 2NR. This speech is singular in its purpose - to make strategic decisions that break down the debate into a series of strong, logical arguments that together will win you the round. In other words, the job of the 2NR is to bring the debate into focus. What does this mean?

There is a massive structural difference between the negative block (2NC + 1NR) and the 2NR - the former is 13 minutes long, while the latter is only 5 minutes long. The block has lots of time to discuss a lot of issues, so correspondingly, the 2NR should use what little time they have to comprehensively discuss a few issues. It is a far better idea to talk in-depth about a couple of strong, offensive positions that you are winning most than it is to spread your time extending every blippy argument while leaving yourself with no chance of winning.

In order to accomplish this, after the 1AR, the 2NR must determine which flows they are going to go for and which flows to kick. This is by far the most important decision that the negative team will be forced to make in the entire debate - being able to identify what flows you are winning is a difficult task that is acquired almost exclusively through experience. Debaters must evaluate the round to determine the path of least resistance to the judge’s ballot.

The path of least resistance is exactly what it sounds like - it is the flow or combination of flows that offer the fewest barriers to victory. Generally, it is defined by a combination of strong offensive arguments and effective defensive mitigation. Often times, the 1AR will have failed to sufficiently rebut these flows, which makes determining it easier.

The 2NR also must have a specific, coherent strategy. It’s a bad idea to choose a random combination of flows with no regard to how they interact at the meta-level of the debate - you need to be able to pick out flows that complement each other. Sometimes, it’s best to go for just one position.

Some examples of coherent strategies:

- Topicality. I’ll be very honest - as a judge, if you are going to have topicality in the 2NR, you should only be going for one violation, and it damn better well take up all five minutes.

- Kritik. This is fairly self explanatory - if you are going for a K, you can’t be extending other flows in the debate that link into the K.

- Counterplan + disadvantage. This is one of the more popular combinations - basically, you have a disadvantage to the case and a counterplan that doesn’t link to that disadvantage but solves just as well as the case.

- Case + disadvantage. When you advocate the status quo, you should have offensive reasons why it is bad (disad, case turns) plus defensive arguments on case to mitigate the 1AC impacts. This strategy requires an immense amount of impact calculus to explain why the disads outweigh the aff.

Some examples of incoherent strategies:

- Topicality + anything else (except theory arguments). “But Nick,” you ask, “what if I don’t win topicality? I’ll lose the debate!” This is a common novice sentiment, to which my response is, “Well duh!” Topicality is a must-win issue. If you’re not confident enough that you’re winning topicality to go all in on it, then it would be better that you not discuss it at all. Winning topicality requires a heavy commitment from the negative, and anything less than that is time better spent focusing on other arguments.

- K + anything else (except theory arguments). NEVER ADVOCATE MULTILPLE WORLDS IN THE 2NR. This is one of the most mind-boggling mistakes you can make, yet I see bad teams do it every tournament. You shouldn’t need to be talking about, say, a disadvantage or a counterplan in the 2NR when your kritik operates on an entirely different framework. It’s blatantly contradictory, and smart teams will be able to call you out on it.

- CP + case. This is also an instance of multiple worlds. If you going for a counterplan, that is your advocacy for the round. Putting defensive arguments on the case means you are arguing that the status quo is good, not that the counterplan is good. They don’t complement each other, and it won’t get you anywhere.

Also, there may be some instances where you are winning multiple flows, especially in unevenly matched rounds. In that event, you must still decide on what flows to go for. Go for arguments that have the most concessions on them, arguments that you are comfortable with, and arguments that the judge is partial to. Counterintuitive as it seems, you often must discard entire flows that you are winning in order to strengthen your focus on other winning arguments.

Ten Arguments Your Judge Does *Not* Want To Hear - Part 1

Have you ever spent ninety minutes of your day being repeatedly prodded with hundreds of sharp, pointy objects?

Probably not. But as most judges will tell you, there are some debate rounds where the arguments presented are so utterly awful that they practically feel as if they are being subjected to such a treatment. Now, many times this is simply a result of inexperienced debaters simply trying to get a grasp on the format - something that is both understandable and forgivable. However, other times it is a product of debaters choosing to run arguments that are fundamentally moronic.

Now, there is definitely a scale when it comes to measuring the level of stupidity of certain positions. It’s not a black and white situation where arguments are either really particularly awesome or so horrible that they should be thrown into the street and shot. So this list will start off with some stuff that might be objectionable but aren’t entirely outrageous, and it will end with stuff that is simply wrong in almost every conceivable way.

And of course, this list is in no way all-inclusive - I am sure that I am forgetting some of the more egregious arguments out there that exist (Malthus, anyone?). But let’s dive right in with Part 1 of the list!

10. Theoretically Sketchy Counterplans

There are certain counterplans out there that rely on shady theoretical justifications to garner competition. A sampling of such counterplans might include, but is not limited to, consultation counterplans, delay counterplans, and to a much lesser extent, plan-inclusive counterplans (PICs) that exclude one element of the plan. What these counterplans have in common is that they try to solve all of the affirmative case while using functional barriers to make permutations impossible.

This ranks at number ten on this list because a majority of judges will still be willing to listen to them despite their personal misgivings, and many teams do in fact run them. However, they will be very sympathetic to the affirmative team if they bring up theoretical objections as to why these types of counterplans are bad, so be very prepared for theory debates should you choose to run them on the neg.

9. Specification Arguments

Most judges tend to view specification arguments with a great amount of hesitation, especially when they are underdeveloped in the 1NC. If your pet specification shell generally lacks decent offensive standards and warrants, it becomes fairly obvious to the judge that you are merely trying to skew your opponents’ time.

Does this mean you should never run spec arguments? No. Some judges will be partial to them. But you need to have a well-developed one-minute shell and a clear, substantiated articulation of in-round ground loss - tell the judge what arguments you couldn’t run because they didn’t specify something in the plan text. Just make sure you ask your judge what they think about these arguments before the round begins.

8. Sneaky Independent Voting Issues

Lots of crafty teams like to hide independent voting issues inside of certain shells. These tend to take anywhere from five to ten seconds to read and almost always end with the phrase “it’s an independent voting issue for fairness” with no further warrant or extrapolation.

These arguments aren’t designed to be well-constructed. In fact, if the opponent answers them, they are usually outright conceded. The victims here are the opponents who are distracted and don’t catch it, and therefore fail to answer it. Most judges will do one of two things in this scenario. They might declare the argument a “cheap-shot” and, while they will still give the perpetuators the ballot, they will also knock off a speaker point or two. Alternatively, they may simply ignore it on the merits that it was never warranted enough in the first place to vote on. Neither of these outcomes is particularly desirable. I would advise you to avoid making a habit of using them.

7. “Time-suck” Topicality Arguments

This is tangentially related to number nine above. A number of judges strongly dislike it when the negative team reads multiple topicality arguments, each taking no more than twenty seconds to read. The 1NC shells will include a barely coherent interpretation, a logical if somewhat unexplained violation, two or three extremely blippy standards, and a voting issue subpoint that often consists of fewer than ten words.

While judges will flow these arguments, they will often find them unconvincing due to their brevity and the void that exists where the warranted analysis should have been placed. And yes, strategically, it might make sense to run them to create an imbalance in time allocation, but it won’t directly help you win the round and it won’t boost your credibility.

6. Poorly-run Kritiks

One of the most frequent complaints I hear from judges relate to inexperienced or otherwise less-than-competent students running kritiks. When I say “poorly-run kritik,” I mean that the negative team probably cut the 1NC shell verbatim out of a camp file, is unable to correctly answer even the most basic of cross-examination questions, is unaware of how the kritik functions in the round, and is unable to engage in line-by-line analysis in the negative block and in the rebuttals. These rounds tend to quickly become chaotic and disorderly.

Please, do not run a kritik until you have familiarized yourself with the author, learned how your kritik functions in debate, and figured out what common answers you might expect to see. In other words, unless you are well-read on the K and you are prepared to engage in clash, you should not run it.

Ten Arguments Your Judge Does *Not* Want To Hear - Part 2

5. The K of T

The K of T, more formally known as the kritik of topicality, essentially tries to argue that certain topicality positions attempt to “exclude” certain groups from policies, and that such exclusion is bad. For example, consider a case which targets social services towards Native Americans living in poverty. A common (though less-than-stellar) topicality argument is that Native Americans do not politically reside within the United States, and therefore that the plan is nontopical. The affirmative then might run a K of T, saying that excluding Native Americans is racist and justifies dehumanization, genocide, or some other choice impact.

A lot of judges are not persuaded by this kritik, myself included. In fact, many go so far as to explicitly state in their judging paradigms that “topicality is not genocide” to demonstrate their level of apathy towards this argument. If they do not reject it outright, many will immediately buy the argument that the kritik is an offensive reason to prefer the affirmative’s counter-interpretation, not a reason to vote down the negative. Try to avoid running it.

4. Time Cube Spec/Gregorian Calendar K/The Matrix K/Other Fundamentally Incorrect Arguments

This classification of arguments is fairly general, but the basic premise is that they rely on warrants which either 1) stretch the human imagination to the point of incredulity, or 2) are simply patently false in every conceivable manner.

For example, the Time Cube Specification argument is drawn from the schizophrenic rantings of Gene Ray, self-described as “Cubic and Wisest Human.” Time is not cubic. Earth is not a cube with four sides. Educators are not, to the best of my knowledge, “evil.” If you want to learn more about this, refer to Better yet, just Google Time Cube and witness firsthand how much of a garbage argument it is.

Likewise, our use of the Gregorian Calendar is not evil. We do not live in a Matrix world. These arguments are simply fundamentally incorrect.

There are too many debaters out there who think that just because certain college teams like the University of West Georgia (namely, the WGLF) run fanatically insane arguments means that they can do so, too. My response is please, don’t. These college teams know what they are talking about and frame these arguments in very specific ways in order to win rounds. The average high school debater might think such arguments are “cool,” but rarely do they have the capacity to correctly utilize them. As a result, those who do attempt to run them make themselves look like dolts and generally waste everybody’s time in the round. Don’t do it.

3. Unsportsmanlike Conduct

Yes, I realize that this refers to behavior and not an argument. However, it’s important to emphasize that judges universally expect courteous behavior from debate participants, regardless of experience level or geographic location. When I say unsportsmanlike conduct, I refer to verbal or physical arguments or gestures that are rude, uncivil, arrogant, insulting, and/or personally demeaning. They don’t even have to be debate arguments - cross-examination and pre/post-round behavior also demand professionalism at all times.

If you decide that you want to act like a jackass in your debate rounds, several things will happen. First, your judge will likely decide to launch a personal vendetta against you. Not only will they nuke your speaker points to kingdom come, they will also devise amazingly creative ways to give the other team the ballot, even if you’re ahead on the flow. Trust me, it is possible, and it does happen. Second, if it becomes a pattern, you will develop a bad reputation. If you become known as the resident jerk on your circuit, your ability to engage in the community and compete at tournaments will be compromised.

How do you avoid acting like this? The answer is control. Control your emotions. Control your passions. Think carefully about the words you use and the manner in which you present them. Remember, don’t attack the person, attack the arguments.

I will quote my own judging paradigm to wrap this section up: “Please compose yourself in a manner befitting your status as a representative of your school.” You should act the same way you act in the classroom among your peers and your teachers. Play nice!

2. Morally Abhorrent Arguments

Racism good. Homophobia good. Genocide good. These are arguments that are theoretically defensible, and perhaps might have a literature base, but yet are still morally and ethically bankrupt. There are some VERY narrow exceptions where such arguments might be permissible, but these instances are so rare that I cannot discuss them for want of first-hand experience.

Look. When it comes to certain realms of argumentation, you need to move away from the perspective that anything can and should be impact-turned. It’s okay to say that economic collapse is good (a la de-development). It’s not okay to say that the wholesale slaughter of an ethnic or religious group is not only acceptable, but beneficial.

Judges on the conservative end of the spectrum will almost automatically drop you. Even more progressive judges will be quick to reject these arguments when your opponent responds to them. Don’t run them.

What you can run are defensive or comparative arguments when answering these things. For example, “racism is declining,” “nuclear war outweighs genocide,” and similar arguments are all acceptable. Yes, these are obviously not offense. That means you just need to find some other strategic way to attack your opponent’s arguments.

1. “Topicality is a reverse voting issue.”

This is the single most idiotic argument that you can possibly make in front of any experienced critic, bar none. The argument that the affirmative team should win the round if they prove that they are topical under the negative’s violation is so incredibly outrageous that I have seen judges literally turn purple and then scream at people who run them in their post-round RFD’s. In fact, if someone runs this against you, your first, second, and third responses should be “HA HA HA - THAT’S FUNNY.”

Arguing that T is an RVI will not only completely strip you of your credibility in front of the critic, it will also probably lower your speaks for the round. Don’t do it.

The Threshold for Topicality: Does there need to be abuse?

Topicality, in its purest form, is meant to be a check on the affirmative in order to preserve some semblance of basic arguments that the negative would reasonably be able to assert. Let’s take the NFA LD Resolution for 2009-2010 as an example of this: The United States Federal Government should substantially reform its domestic transportation infrastructure. Now, an affirmative could hypothetically pick a random five mile stretch of highway in Mississippi to completely rip up and repave under this resolution and the negative doesn’t have a whole lot of quantifiable reasons why not to do this. At the same time, the affirmative also has minimal maneuverability with advantage scenarios, but all the same please suspend your skepticism for a moment for the sake of the example. The negative can’t really argue that it’s that expensive relative to the overall DOT budget with a spending disadvantage. They can’t argue that the state would be a better actor because that is the status quo – the federal government doles out grants and then the state puts out bids for private contractors to complete the project. Given that predicament, the negative must look to procedurals ie Topicality.

There are two types of “abuse” that negative teams will argue are reasons why the affirmative’s plan text (functionally their interpretation) is in violation of the resolution: potential and in-round.

In-round abuse argues that the affirmative either co-opted argumentation that the resolution designates for the negative or makes the affirmative almost unreasonable to debate against because the negative can’t link disadvantages or run counter plans like the no spending disadvantage or states Counterplan. Potential abuse being an argument that suggests that the affirmative’s case justifies in-round abuse in other rounds or allows them leeway in possibly shifting the text of plan at a later point in time in the round or in future rounds. And when these arguments are deployed they are often found in some sort of “Ground” standard in the topicality shell.

I am, personally, very much a game’s theorist when approaching this kind of debate. If you can win that you’re meeting the negative’s interpretation of the word/phrase then you win t, if you can provide a counter interpretation with additional counter standards that you do a better job of weighing in the round, you win t. If you can place a lot of warranted theory on why topicality is an illegitimate argument, you win t. So, these abuse arguments are not necessary in my mind. They’re certainly compelling and can hold more weight than “the affirmative broke the rules”, but I won’t grimace if you want to play the rules card. However, there is a segment of the judging community (high school and college) that places that threshold for topicality – the affirmative has the right to parametricize as they please unless you (as the negative) aren’t getting any room to argue. This is always something competitors should attempt to gage about their judges before utilizing topicality regardless if you decide to go for it or a strategic time trade-off.

Five Simple Rules for Making Witty Debate Remarks

You’ve probably seen it before. You are sitting at a desk watching a varsity policy elimination round when suddenly, an experienced debater cracks an outrageously funny analogy and the entire room explodes in laugher. You probably admire these debaters for their ability to produce snarky, witty, and/or sarcastic remarks at almost any juncture, and always at the right moment.

Wit in debate is a skill that’s acquired with experience. It’s not something that can be taught, only acquired. What this means is that if you’re just a novice, there are probably better things you should be focusing on. But for those who want to add just a little extra spice to their speeches in hopes of getting that extra half a speaker point, read on.

1. Do not use ad hominems. You might think you’re being funny when you say “I thought Sarah Palin was the worst debater I’d ever seen…but after this round I might have to change my mind!” If, in fact, the statement is even remotely close to being true, you’re not being funny, you’re just being a jerk. Not only do you make your opponent feel like crap, you also piss off the judge in the back of the room. That means your speaks will suffer, not to mention your reputation. If you’re strutting around like an insufferable asshole during rounds, word will spread, trust me, and it won’t make for a positive experience for you.

The only exception to this rule is when you’re being legitimately ironic. For example, if you were to direct the same remark at one of the best debaters on your circuit and you had a good relationship with them, everyone would probably find it very amusing.

2. Attack the arguments. This goes right along with number one. Instead of attacking a debater for their poor argumentative skills, attack their argumentation. Make fun of it, but keep it light and funny. “Off their disad, look judge, I’ve seen more warrants on a Buddhist monk’s criminal record. Their scenario simply lacks any semblance of rational thought.”

Attacking the arguments is great because you can still take jabs at your opponents without directly offending them or the judge. Plus, if you pull it off right, it can actually help your speaker points.

3. Avoid sketchy issues. What constitutes a sketchy issue? Typically, anything that has a reasonable chance of offending someone is a subject best left off the record. This limitation extends to politics - Sarah Palin jokes included (unless you’re absolutely positive the judge is a flaming liberal). These issues are especially off-limits in front of lay critics. So while you should feel free to compare the quality of your opponents’ impact scenarios to those of a dozen monkeys with typewriters, it’s probably not such a great idea to make casual references to, say, prison rapes.

4. Be original. Do not ask for a moment of silence for a dropped argument. Their case does not have more holes in it than swiss cheese. Your evidence is not on fire. These might have been creative statements to make…in the 90’s. Nowadays? Not so much. Using the same old tired clichés will not jive positively with experienced judges.

5. Don’t impromptu. Even if you think of a really, really awesome joke to crack in the middle of a speech, don’t use it. Why not? Remember, the object of snarky comments is to help your speaks, not to tank them. It’s best that you think these things out before you go into rounds, because not doing so automatically creates a risk that you will accidentally violate one of the four rules outlined above. Instead, you should bounce those great ideas you have off your team and your coaches during breaks and see what they think.


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