3 Things Debaters Can Learn From Thinking Like a Policymaker

Debaters talk a big talk about being (or pretending to be) policymakers; their actions suggest otherwise. At a certain level, debate and policymaking seem irreconcilable. Debate requires the participants to vehemently defend a given position, while policymaking requires significant concessions. However, debaters can learn a lot from thinking with policymaking perspective; their arguments will become better-warranted and better-developed, their responses will be stronger and more applicable, and their research and casing will be more efficient and thorough. Below is a list of some problematic debate practices from a policymaking perspective, as well as recommendations for how to avoid these pitfalls.

1) Debaters Should Learn How To Say “You’re Right”

I get it. You’re defending a side, and you want to win, so you’ll go to extreme lengths to avoid admitting that there is a single problem with your advocacy. But think about that: do you really not believe that there is a single legitimate charge against your case? Of course there is, and while you are probably able to admit that outside of round, far too few debaters will make that concession in-round.

Part of the problem here stems from the way that debaters are taught to make concessions. They are told that they need to be able to figure out where their opponent is winning on the flow, and explain how they preclude or outweigh those points. But this seems to suggest that 1) those points should be debated in the first place, and 2) concessions can only happen at the end of the round. Why should this be the case? If an opponent makes a legitimate and true charge, debaters should feel confident in saying that their opponent is right – but that their advocacy is still preferable. No policy (or advocacy) comes without its downfalls; good policies are good despite their downfalls. While most debaters say “No, actually…”, a policymaker says “You’re right, but…”. 

Here’s the thing: your opponent’s argument probably has at least some truth to it. This doesn’t mean that you need to agree to the entire argument – debaters are great at making arguments with a claim/impact that doesn’t match the warrant. But you should find the truth that is there, agree to it, and explain why despite that truth your advocacy is still preferable. Good policymaking is all about cost-benefit analysis. But you can’t engage in quality cost-benefit analysis without admitting that there are costs.

2) Debaters Should Answer Arguments With Realistic Criticisms

Want to learn how changing education laws or environmental policy can lead to nuclear war? Just ask a debater!

Again, I get it. I get the value of making arguments with huge impacts, or critiquing your opponent’s argument based on a really tenuous link. There’s a place for these arguments, but they should by no means make up the majority of your rebuttals.

 Remember: No policy or advocacy comes without its downfalls. Why not take advantage of the charges against your opponent’s advocacy that are true? Of course, the best way to do this is through targeted research, but you won’t have 10 quality cards prepared for every conceivable advocacy of the other side. But, in a pinch, don’t resort to bad cards or old disads. Think. What might realistically be the consequences of this position? What do you think would be (actual) the real-world implications? Sure, your impacts may not be as huge, but I can tell you that many judges (myself included) would very much prefer to vote on a well-warranted, feasible argument than a far-fetched, poorly-warranted nuke war scenario.

In all fairness, extemping strong, well-warrant responses can be tough, so preparing solid policy takeouts should start at the research and blocking phase. Search for articles that explain step-by-step the effects of a given policy change. Don’t minimize text that focuses on function and causality. Find strong warrants for why these impacts are problematic – one article might conclude that a policy change would lead to decreased institutional transparency; you can find another that outlines why that is bad. Just don’t lose sight of reality. Cost-benefit analysis can’t work if the costs are unrealistic.

3) Debaters Should Be More Flexible In Their Casing

Good policymakers change their pitch depending on who they’re talking to. A proposed policy shift for schools will be explained differently to teachers than to parents, administrators, or taxpayers. But too few debaters have modular cases, and too few debaters modify their advocacies substantially once they’re written.

Modular cases have sections that can be selected or deselected based on the round. For example, a debater might have a case that has two possible frameworks they choose between, and five contentions that link to each framework (with the assumption that they will choose the 1-4 most applicable contentions for each round). Modular cases allow debaters to adapt; and adaptability is one of the marks of good policymaking. One advocacy need not have only one defense – think of a position that you like, and come up with as many ways as you can to support it. (A beneficial effect of modular cases is that opponents might think that they have you prepped out, but you present new material for which they were unprepared). Think like a good policymaker – modify your strategy based on your audience and anticipated or actual challenges to your position.

Modifying cases shouldn’t end in-round though; debaters should constantly edit their positions based on their opponents’ responses and strategy, and their own research. The more you learn about a topic, the more challenges you will encounter against your own advocacies. Don’t write these articles off; include them in your prep and be prepared to answer their chargers. Pre-empt their claims in your case or cut frontlines to use against them. Once you write a case, it shouldn’t stay that way forever – it should change with every new relevant article you find, with every good round where your opponent makes solid responses, with every conversation with a judge about the efficacy of your position. I suspect that pride and laziness are at least partially to blame here; it’s easy to feel like your case is really great, or like it’s already written and it works so it should stay that way. But a case that’s really great can still be improved. Casing should never be viewed as complete. Again, think like a good policymaker – modify your cases based on challenges to it that you’ve encountered both in the literature and in rounds.

In short, the biggest takeaways that debaters can learn from policymakers are these: 1) Admit the faults of your positions (and explain why it’s still preferred), 2) Be specific, and 3) Be flexible. Good luck!

Karlyn is a senior Public Policy and International Studies major at the University of Chicago.

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