The Individual and the Political Order

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Named after the Senatorial debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, Lincoln-Douglas (LD) Debate is a form of structured one-on-one argumentation on a particular resolution. One debater affirms (argues in favor of) the resolution; the other negates (argues against) it. Past National Forensic League (NFL) resolutions include: "Capital punishment is justified," "A just social order ought to place the principle of equality above that of liberty," "Civil disobedience is justified in a democracy," "The use of economic sanctions to achieve U.S. foreign policy goals is moral," "Violent juvenile offenders ought to be treated as adults in the criminal justice system." NFL resolutions change every two months.

LD is sometimes referred to as "values debate" because topics are debated in principle. Basically, that means LDers debate what ought to be (normative claims), not what is (descriptive claims). Of course, the "real world" must still be considered in order to define concepts, but history and specifics cannot be the basis of argumentation because that would make resolutions mere questions of fact. For example, alleging that the death penalty is racially biased in the U.S. has nothing to do with the justification of capital punishment itself (especially if the resolution doesn't specify a nation, time period, etc.).

A basic understanding of philosophical concepts is essential in LD, but one does not need to read the actual philosophers to be successful (although doing so is often interesting). Good secondary sources clarify and explain philosophies without misconstruing them or dumbing them down. I recommend The Individual and the Political Order by Bowie and Simon. Although most research in LD is topic-specific, there are certain ideas that are widely applicable because resolutions are subsets of general, age-old, irresolvable conflicts such as liberty vs. order, means vs. ends, etc.

Format of a Debate Round

· affirmative constructive (AC) - 6 minutes

· negative cross-examination of affirmative (NCX) - 3 minutes

· negative constructive (NC) - 7 minutes

· affirmative cross-examination of negative (ACX) - 3 minutes

· first affirmative rebuttal (1AR) - 4 minutes

· negative rebuttal (NR) - 6 minutes

· second affirmative rebuttal (2AR) - 3 minutes

· preparation time - usually 3 minutes for each debater to allocate at his/her discretion between speeches; debaters typically use half of their prep time before each rebuttal

Conventional Speech Structure

· AC
- opening quote or position statement

- statement of resolution
- definition(s)
- observation(s) (if appropriate)
- value premise and value criterion/criteria
- contention(s)
- conclusion

· NC
- opening quote or position statement

- counter-definition(s) (if you disagree with your opponent's)
- value premise and value criterion/criteria
- contention(s)
- refute affirmative case
- conclusion

· CX
- clarification questions

- probing questions

· 1AR
- establish value premise and value criterion/criteria

- refute negative case
- defend affirmative case

· NR
- establish value premise and value criterion/criteria

- refute affirmative case or defend negative case
- refute affirmative case or defend negative case
- crystallize the round
- "write the ballot"

· 2AR
- establish value premise and value criterion/criteria

- crystallize the round
- "write the ballot"


These should be clear and fair and can come from a dictionary or a topic-specific source. Since words exist to represent ideas, and debate is the clash of ideas, it's often preferable to define concepts instead of individual terms. For example, "economic sanctions" and "U.S. foreign policy goals" should be defined, rather than each word. Also, it's a waste of time to define "understood" words, such as "is," "use," etc. If they aren't abusive or flawed, your opponents should accept your definitions and they shouldn't be a factor in rounds, which is usually the case.


These can be used on the affirmative to clarify the conflicts/questions posed by resolutions. An argument in favor of your side is not an observation; an observation exists to establish reasonable parameters for debate, usually by precluding extreme or non-resolutional arguments. For example, the affirmative on "The use of economic sanctions to achieve U.S. foreign policy goals is moral" could observe that the U.S.'s bad track record with sanctions (assuming this is even the case) doesn't necessarily entail that they're immoral. Maybe those sanctions were misused; maybe they failed to meet stated objectives, but they were still beneficial or even essential to conflict resolution - we should debate the morality of sanctions in principle (i.e., whether it's moral to force business to stop trading with certain entities in order to pursue U.S. foreign policy goals) or else the debate may become a futile war of examples.

Value Premise and Value Criterion/Criteria

The value premise is the standard by which to evaluate the round; the debater who better argues that his/her side of the resolution upholds the value should win. Values shouldn't be biased toward one's side, or else one's arguments become tautological. For example: a value of "liberty" on the negative of "A just social order ought to place the principle of equality above that of liberty." Values are typically metaphysical abstractions that are more-or-less synonymous with "goodness." Examples include: justice, morality, governmental legitimacy, human dignity, social welfare. They are sometimes fairly explicit in resolutions (e.g., "Violent juvenile offenders ought to be treated as adults in the criminal justice system."), but debaters often must infer them.

A value criterion is what one must fulfill in order to uphold one's value premise. A criterion, in effect, defines one's value by limiting what aspect of it one must uphold in order to win the round. This is necessary because both sides have inherent flaws, so it's impossible to uphold "goodness" 100%. Criteria can be words, phrases, or propositions. Examples include: autonomy, rights protection, the fulfillment of governmental obligations, the principle of majority rule and minority rights. On the affirmative of "Capitalism is superior to socialism as a means of achieving economic justice," the 1999 national champion's value premise was economic justice, and his criteria were the maximization of economic freedom and the maximization of overall wealth. Criteria should be resolution-specific and conducive to one's side. They should be necessary and sufficient to achieve one's value in the context of the resolution. Thus, a criterion of "rights protection" when debating "The public's right to know ought to be valued above the right to privacy of candidates for public office" is inadequate because each side, by definition, protects one right at the expense of the other. "Rights protection" provides no means of adjudicating the conflict (i.e., determining which side better upholds the value); a criterion should link one's value and one's arguments.

In your value paragraph, define your value and explain why it's appropriate for the resolution. Values are usually defined through criteria. For example, a value of justice, defined as "fairness" or "giving each individual his or her fair due," can be interpreted in different ways; thus, your criterion/criteria should explain how we determine "fair due." After stating you value, defining it, and linking it to the resolution, present your criterion/criteria and link it/them to you value. If you decide to use two (or more) criteria, note whether you need to fulfill both or either one in order to uphold your value (any explain why). Don't make arguments to affirm or negate in your value paragraphs; save them for your contentions. Values and criteria are standards; arguments attempt to prove that your side meets them.


A contention is a broad, fully developed argument for or against the resolution. It consists of premises and a conclusion. Of course, these premises aren't always generally accepted assumptions (e.g., Killing innocents is wrong.); usually they need to be established. Thus, there are often sub-arguments within a contention or multiple parts to a contention. Begin a contention with a tag line; state your argument and that it affirms or negates the resolution. For example, "My first contention is that violent juvenile offenders ought to be treated as adults in the criminal justice system because they are as culpable for their crimes." Then prove it (and its components) with analysis and evidence. Contentions should be clear, organized, and logical. Impact your arguments; to do so is to note that an argument actually proves that you fulfill your criterion/criteria and thereby uphold your value. Thus, an impact explains the importance and relevance of an argument. Even if an argument's impact seems intuitive, don't expect the judge to make it for you.


To refute an argument is to disprove it. When refuting an argument, first briefly restate it. Next point out any logical flaws that it has. These include a lack of analysis, a lack of evidence (if it's an empirical claim), and a lack of impact. Then give your counter-argument(s); these attempt to disprove your opponent's claim by proving that the opposite is true. Keep in mind that not every argument your opponent makes must be refuted. If one of the affirmative's points on "On balance, violent revolution is a just response to oppression" was that a right to revolt exists under an illegitimate government, the negative should probably accept it but, of course, dispute the use of violence.

One strategy to facilitate refutation is grouping arguments. If your opponent makes seven arguments in his first contention that all rely on the same assumption, you can group them and refute that assumption; it would save you the time involved in addressing them one-by-one. Be careful, though; if your opponent successfully rebuilds that one claim, all seven arguments stand. Be sure to explain that the arguments you group are related; don't group distinct arguments. Let the judge know when you use this strategy. For example, "In her first contention, my opponent argues A, B, C and D. However, these arguments all rely on assumption X because... This assumption is false because... Thus, the arguments fall."

When refuting a particularly important and/or well-argued point, it's sometimes helpful to make an "even if" response in order to cover all your bases. This entails refuting the claim and then arguing that even if the claim were true, you still win. For example: contending that a right to revolt does not exist, and that even if it did, only nonviolent revolution is a just response to oppression.

Another key tactic is using what you accomplished in CX to your benefit. If your opponent admitted something that contradicts one of his points, use that concession in rebuttals to help refute that argument.

Cross-applying arguments is also useful but risky; it only works with skilled flow judges. Use this strategy when your opponent makes the same argument in different places. Refute it the first time, and when it next appears, establish where it was previously made and then cross-apply your argument(s). For example, "Joe's next point is X. He made the same argument at the top of his first contention. Cross-apply my responses."

When refuting values and criteria, it's absolutely imperative that they remain standards separate from arguments to affirm or negate. For example, when responding to a value of justice and a criterion of rights protection, don't say something to the effect of "My opponent doesn't achieve justice because affirming/negating violates rights." That argument does not deny that justice through rights protection is the standard to evaluate the round. If you want to refute it, you can argue, for example, that rights protection is insufficient to achieve justice, or that rights protection is too vague (What rights?). It's beneficial for both debaters to agree upon a value when they interpret the resolution in a similar manner (which is usually the case); this enables them to focus the debate on who better upholds the value (meaning more time for actual argumentation regarding the truth of the resolution). For example: "justice" vs. "just punishment" - the latter is simply a more resolution-specific instantiation of the former. Occasionally, both debaters will have fundamentally different takes on what "goodness" means in the context of the resolution, and a true "values debate" will ensue. For example: social welfare vs. justice - the former implies that the ends/outcomes should be emphasized when deciding what is right, while the latter emphasizes fair means/processes. This type of debate (regarding the nature of the standard(s) in the round) almost always occurs with the value criteria, because they are tailored to one's arguments.

Although debaters usually try to address all arguments, they almost always drop (fail to address) some due to time constraints, flowing errors, etc. If you drop an argument and your opponent points that out, you shouldn't address it in your next speech; that's called "sleazing." Sleazing is considered unethical because debaters have a responsibility to, well, debate - to address all arguments on both sides in the 1AR and NR, and all affirmative arguments in NC refutation. For the purpose of adjudicating a round, a dropped argument should be considered true, regardless of how unreasonable or poorly argued it is. This is so because debate is a game of skill; if it were solely a forum for truth-seeking, then judges would feel free to vote against a debater just because they didn't agree with what he said (even if his opponent dropped it). Competition would be pointless. Therefore, when your opponent extends an argument, try to outweigh it with your other arguments and/or show that its impact is minimal or nonexistent. If you drop an argument and your opponent also drops it in his/her next speech, it falls out of the round; you should point that out to the judge in case your opponent would bring it up later. When one of your arguments is dropped, extend and impact it in your next speech. For example, "Joe's next point is X. Extend my response Y. This argument proves..." If your opponent extends an argument to which you responded (which will invariably occur), use your next speech to point out the responses you made. If you don't have another speech, hope that your judge is competent enough to know that you responded. Or maybe you're not competent enough to know that you really dropped the argument.... Debate will always be subjective.


To crystallize is to synthesize and sum-up the major arguments in a round and attempt to persuade the judge that you're winning them. You should usually mention arguments that your opponent dropped. Don't bring up new points during crystallization; show how each key argument has developed throughout the round and why your analysis is superior. Don't use the word "crystallization;" present points as "key voting issues," "main reasons to affirm/negate," etc.

"Writing the Ballot"

This is a pretty simple concept. An LD ballot asks the judge to provide "reasons for decision." If you, the debater, could write a succinct reason for decision in your favor, what would it be? Use that statement to conclude your last speech; it's much more persuasive than, say, ending with the impact of an extension at the bottom of your second contention. If you continue to give specific analysis during the final seconds of your final speech, you'll seem like you're cramming or you're pressed for time. Let the judge know (or at least think) you've made all the points you wanted; conclude with some appealing rhetoric.


Quotes, statistics, and examples fall under this category. They should come from "credible" sources (e.g., professors, philosophers, Supreme Court justices, Framers). Always cite a source's credentials, even if they're widely known (e.g., philosopher John Locke, Chief Justice William Rehnquist).

Evidence can't replace logical analysis. For example, don't argue that on balance, violent revolution is not a just response to oppression because many innocents were killed in the French Revolution. Explain why violent revolution in principle entails undue suffering; you could say that violent revolutionaries are extreme, uncontrolled, and take on a "with us or against us" attitude that causes them to view non-participants as enemies. Then you can provide evidence.

Use evidence for support. If you want to prove the existence of a right to revolt, don't cite a paragraph of Locke. Rather, cite his key assertions or analysis and explain and defend the rest (with his reasoning) in your own words.


This is one of the most important skills in LD because you can't effectively debate if you can't keep track of what is said. Flowing is a system of shorthand note-taking of every speech in a round. You only have to flow what you're going to address, so don't flow opening quotes or fair definitions. Your case should be pre-flowed before every round. During a round, as your opponent speaks, flow his/her arguments and, if you can, your responses to them. During prep time, finish flowing your responses and mentally prepare your speech.

It's impossible to teach flowing without examples and a demonstration, so I'll leave the specifics to you and your coach. Of course, flowing improves with practice; develop your own shorthand and compare your flow with others to see if you missed anything. As long as you can keep track of all the arguments and responses in a round, you can flow however you want. I recommend flowing the affirmative and negative speeches in different colors.


To signpost is to tell the judge where you are on the flow. For example, "Look to Joe's first contention. His first argument is X. My response is A. His next point is Y. My first response is B. My second response is C. Look to his second contention..." This may sound mechanical, but it's essential for good debate. Signposting enables judges and opponents to keep track of arguments and responses so they can see how the round is developing. In turn, not only are everyone's flows neater, debate isn't muddled on an ideological level.

The Speeches

Each speech should utilize all available time.

· constructives
These are a debater's only prepared speeches. They should be typed and timed prior to competition. Revision between tournaments is key; use what you learned from each round and question the truth of every statement and the logic of every argument. Cases will never be completely "true" or logical, and a good case alone won't win you a round, but a bad case may lose you one. Cases don't need to be memorized, but one should be familiar enough with them to make eye contact with judges when presenting them. Persuasive and reasonable rhetoric is a plus, but simplicity, logical structure, clarity, organization, and word economy are of utmost importance. Avoid assertions, repetition, unnecessary elevated vocabulary, jargon, and arguments (even good ones) that most people are inclined to reject. For example, one could negate "The use of economic sanctions to achieve U.S. foreign policy goals is moral" by claiming that U.S. foreign policy goals are selfish and inconsistent, but most judges would find that difficult to buy even if the argument is analytically sound.

Your AC should have 1-3 contentions. If you only have one, it's probably advisable to separate different arguments into sub-points to avoid rambling (or the appearance of rambling). It's sometimes useful to preempt common negative arguments. For example, "My opponent may argue X, but this is flawed because..."

During the first half or so of the NC, present your prepared case, which should contain 1-2 contentions. Use the rest of your time to refute the affirmative case.

· CX
This is usually the most interesting part of a debate round because direct clash occurs and debaters' personalities can surface.

When asking questions, be clear, personable, succinct, reasonable, and courteous, but maintain control; you're the one doing the cross-examining. You should stand next to your opponent and face the judge at all times, even if your (inexperienced) opponent looks at you. If (s)he is giving a long-winded answer, you can politely try to move on, but if (s)he insists on finishing, let him/her; judges should be turned off by rambling and notice how it cuts into your questioning time. You shouldn't read off prewritten questions because each case has its own unique flaws, opponents answer differently, and you'll seem out of touch with the particulars of the round. There should be a strategic flow to your CX. Don't just ask one unrelated question after another; it usually takes more than one to make your point on an issue. You should know what to go for in CX by familiarizing yourself with the weaknesses of common and/or expected arguments. Ask clarification questions first (if necessary); if you don't understand an argument or missed one, you can't attack it. Then exploit logical flaws and a lack of analysis and/or evidence. Challenge the links between your opponent's value, criterion/criteria, and contentions. For taking out arguments, the "staircase," or "garden path," method of staggering questions works well; begin by asking simple, general, benign questions with obvious answers to lay a foundation for your attack without letting your opponent see what's coming. Then proceed with more specific inquiries; you're establishing premises that produce a logical conclusion in your favor. But don't ask your opponent to grant that conclusion (e.g., "So capital punishment is justified, right?") even if (s)he accepted its premises because (s)he will have a chance to deny it. Instead, use your opponent's concessions in your next speech. For example, "Joe granted X, Y, and Z in cross-examination. Therefore, Q is true." Don't ask ambiguous, loaded (e.g., "Do you still smoke crack?"), or personal questions. Often the most effective questions are "Why?", "How?", etc.

The same stylistic factors apply to answering questions. Don't let your opponent force you into an unreasonable "yes or no," but, similarly, don't try to take control of the CX. You shouldn't need your flow; know your side thoroughly. Be sensible; make concessions if they won't really hurt your position. Don't contradict yourself. Defend your arguments without seeming defensive or evasive. Ask your opponent to rephrase unclear questions. It's OK if your opponent cuts you off if your answer is excessively long, but if (s)he does so and you need more time to fully answer his/her question, let him/her know.

· rebuttals
These are the speeches in which you attack your opponent's analysis and defend your own. Clarity, word economy, persuasion, time allocation, and organization are key. Don't speak too quickly. Always signpost.

The 1AR is generally considered to be the most difficult speech because you have to defend your case and attack your opponent's in just 4 minutes. You may have to speak somewhat quickly to cover all of the arguments on both sides, but maintain clarity. If you express your ideas succinctly, you probably won't need to go too fast. Spend approximately 30 seconds dealing with the value(s) and criteria/criterion on both sides. Then spend about 1.45 on each side. It's beneficial to spend more time on the side of the flow with more arguments (almost always the affirmative, since it's the longer constructive) and to spend more time on more important arguments.

In the NR, spend approximately 30 seconds dealing with the value(s) and criteria/criterion on both sides. Then spend about 2 minutes on each side. That leaves 1.30 or so to crystallize the round and "write the ballot."

Use the 2AR to your advantage; as the affirmative, you have the last say. Don't make any new arguments; that would be sleazing because your opponent wouldn't have a chance to respond to them. Show that you're winning all the important arguments or that the arguments you're winning outweigh the ones you're not. Be slow, clear, and persuasive.


Your goal in a round is, of course, to persuade the judge to vote for you. If you can recognize persuasive speaking, then you know what it entails. Emphasis, enunciation, clarity, fluency, word economy, eye contact, facial expressions, effective gestures, and poise are key. Avoid "um," "uh," etc. Use precise language; avoid especially ambiguous phrases such as "to some extent," "on some level," etc. Think before you speak; you'd be amazed by the things debaters say in rounds that they'd scoff at in a conversation. In general, it's all about professionalism; find the middle ground. Be confident (even if you think you're losing), not arrogant. Be assertive, not rude. Be rhetorically appealing, not pretentious. Be personable, not casual. Sound intelligent, not pedantic. Don't make faces or mutter when your opponent says something false (e.g., extending a point you didn't drop) or, in your opinion, ridiculous. Debate isn't personal; ideologies are in conflict.

Adapt your style to suit your judge. If she's experienced and flows, great. However, if she doesn't and just takes notes or writes nothing at all, don't use jargon. Explain concepts. For example, don't ask her to "extend" sub-point B of your second contention. Tell her that your opponent failed to address it, briefly restate it, and explain its importance.

Tournaments and Preparation

The harder you work, the better you should do.

The first step is research - reading and "cutting cards" (finding evidence to use in speeches). The arguments and analysis found in topic-specific sources (e.g., books, Supreme Court decisions, law reviews) are almost always the most helpful. Philosophical works usually provide fundamental reasoning but sometimes discuss specific issues, too. I recommend Black's Law Dictionary for definitions but general dictionaries or topic-specific sources often provide better ones.

Next comes brainstorming. List all the arguments and potential values and criteria you can think of on both sides, then evaluate what you've come up with.

Then it's time to begin casewriting. Start with outlines, write, and revise. If you don't have a coach to look over your cases or teammates to have practice rounds with, try to find someone to bounce ideas around with.

Before tournaments, you should "block" arguments; for each side, list all the arguments you anticipate and/or have heard and write responses to them. Blocks can also contain evidence for use in rebuttals. Blocks should be consulted during prep time so you don't forget responses or have to think of them on the spot. If you want to go one step farther, think of persuasive and word-economical ways of phrasing them, and practice delivering your responses.

During and after tournaments, learn from your rounds. If an opponent exploited a flaw in your case, fix it. If you liked one of her arguments, use it next time. If elimination rounds are being held and you're not in them, watch and flow one. You can also watch videos of past NFL national championship final rounds. If you're really serious, redo your rebuttals after rounds to improve word economy, time allocation, rhetoric, diction, etc.

At tournaments, you should have a timer or stopwatch, your cases, blocks, paper, pens (preferable different-colored), copies of the original sources of your evidence (in case you need to prove its authenticity), and, of course, a container (e.g., briefcase, backpack).

Tournaments vary considerably in size, format, quality of judging and competition, prestige, awards, punctuality, etc. Judges don't merely pick winners; they write ballots for each round that the debaters receive at the end of the tournament. They also keep track of speech times and should give you time signals during your speeches and call out prep time used in thirty-second intervals. If they don't have a timer or don't give signals, having a timer of your own is invaluable. A ballot consists of comments, reason(s) for decision, and, almost always, speaker points for each debater (usually on a 20-30 point scale; the higher, the better). Speaker points ideally reflect how well each debater performed overall (not just how well (s)he spoke) and how well each performed in relation to the other. Thus, a 30-29 round should be excellent and close, and a 28-25 round should be decisive. However, since some judges are more critical than others, 26 can be good or mediocre. In general, 29-30 is excellent 27-28 is good, 25-26 is fair, 23-24 is poor, 21-22 is bad, and 20 should be the lowest given, although some judges give less. Unfortunately, subjectivity can only be mitigated. Speaker points are used to determine speaker awards and/or break ties between debaters with the same win-loss record.

In tournaments with elimination rounds, debaters are seeded based on their performance in preliminary rounds. A particular number of debaters advances depending on the elimination round a tournament "breaks" to. For example, if a tournament breaks to octofinals, the top sixteen debaters clear. In the octofinal round, seeds 1 and 16, 2 and 15, 3 and 14, etc. debate. Before each elim round, the debater who wins the coin toss can choose to affirm or negate. If two debaters who "hit" (debated) each other in a prelim round meet in an elim round, there is no coin toss; they switch sides from their previous round. Teammates cannot debate each other in prelim rounds. If seeding dictates that they meet in an elim round, their coach will decide if they debate, if the higher seed advances, or their coach will choose who advances. If the debaters advancing to an elim round are all from the same school, the tournament is "closed out," and they are declared co-champions. Unlike most prelim rounds, elim rounds are almost always adjudicated by panels of judges; the debater with the most ballots in his/her favor wins.

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