A “Second-Best” Theory of Lincoln-Douglas Debate

A “Second-Best” Theory of Lincoln-Douglas Debate
Article by Alex Smith

Every year, it seems that someone writes an article or makes a post claiming that the activity is in a state of theoretical crisis. Many of these arguments have made some version of the following two broad claims:

(a) “LD is too much like policy debate.” These arguments typically criticize some or all of the following: rapid delivery; the proliferation of theory debate; the deployment of “plans” or other specific advocacies that fail to “affirm the entire resolution”; the use of unrealistic and exaggerated impacts; etc.

(b) “LD is not enough like policy debate.” These arguments typically criticize some or all of the following: insufficient use of or quality of evidence; arguments framed at a very high level of abstraction; an insufficient focus on “real-world” issues or the “topic literature”; the proliferation of a priori arguments, skepticism, and other similar arguments; an excessive reliance on defense; etc.

While both of these positions have some force, neither provides a complete account of the theoretical pathologies that plague modern Lincoln-Douglas debate. Without engaging the substance of this debate too deeply, I want to suggest an alternative theory that may explain how LD is both too much like, and not enough like, policy debate.

The idea of the “second-best” is borrowed from welfare economics, and it attempts to explain a seeming paradox in optimal policy design: if the optimum state of affairs has multiple elements, the second-best state of affairs may be one that contains none of those elements, rather than one that contains only some. For instance, suppose that you believed that the Hawaiian pizza was the best kind of pizza. You may still prefer a plain, unadorned cheese pizza to either a pineapple pizza or a Canadian bacon pizza, even though the cheese pizza contains fewer of the “optimum” toppings. Similarly, even if you believed (as many do) that the oatmeal raisin cookie was the best sort of cookie, you may prefer a chocolate chip cookie or a gingersnap to an oatmeal cookie with no raisins or a raisin cookie with no oatmeal. Aside from possibly making you hungry (feel free to take a break and grab a snack), these examples capture a fundamental intuition that the different pieces of any institution – whether it be a cookie, a regulatory policy, or a style of debate – work in synergy with one another, and that the second-best option may be one that looks nothing like the first-best option.

The current state of LD is largely traceable to the failure to consider theoretical issues from a second-best perspective. LD has evolved largely by borrowing conventions and strategies from policy debate, including speed, theory arguments, etc. Although these conventions are part of the overall “package” of good policy debate, they may not be worthwhile for LD to emulate if it chooses to stay distinct from policy in other ways. For instance, one might make one of the following arguments:

Speed. Although LD is probably not as fast as policy debate, it might be too fast for its own good. In policy, there is an expectation that arguments are supported by evidence. Judges play a more active role in assessing arguments and have a higher threshold for voting on most arguments, especially “cheap shots.” Arguments usually interact in straightforward ways, and arguments like “a prioris” and “skepticism triggers” are almost unheard of. Policy debate is less line-by-line oriented and more positional, especially in the later speeches. There is probably a higher expectation of clarity from debaters. Given these structural and functional differences, it may make sense to be less tolerant of speed in LD, especially if one believes that it tends to exacerbate the excessive line-by-line focus, negative side bias, and lack of expectations regarding argument quality in LD. One might also believe that given the subject matter of LD, speed is less appropriate; because metaethics and analytical philosophy are, by their nature, more complex than most social science literature, it may be appropriate to require that those arguments be delivered at a slower pace.

Theory debate. In policy, there are strong structural incentives not to run (or at least not to go for) bad theory arguments. Judges have much higher expectations of argument quality on these issues and are less willing to vote for a theory argument that is technically mishandled. Many judges assume that theory is a reason to reject the argument, rather than the team. There is no 7:4 time skew, and there are 3 additional speeches in which arguments can be developed. Because disclosure is near-universal, debaters are both able and expected to substantively clash with their opponents’ arguments. There are probably other structural constraints, but the point is clear: theory arguments in policy assume a different background set of adjudicatory norms and structural constraints than do theory arguments in LD, and arguments that may be perfectly acceptable in policy (due to the existence of other structural checks on their viability) may prove to be unfair or harmful in LD.

I do not necessarily subscribe to either of these positions, but they illustrate an important point: even if one believes that policy is a superior form of debate, or that policy debate has advanced further on some issues than LD, it does not follow that LD would benefit by borrowing or adapting wholesale argumentative conventions from policy debate. Given its unique subject matter, resolutions, and structural features, we may believe that LD is better off developing a distinct set of argumentative, interpretive, and adjudicatory conventions from policy debate, rather than clumsily adopting and transplanting policy’s own conventions.

Policy, for all its faults, does not seem to suffer the endemic theoretical anxieties and identity crises that plague LD, largely because it has developed a relatively stable equilibrium of argumentative, interpretive, adjudicatory conventions. LD has not done so. It has borrowed piecemeal from policy debate, and in so doing may have evolved into an activity that is worse than either policy or “traditional” LD. If LD wants to remain sustainable, it needs to develop a stable equilibrium of argumentative, adjudicatory, and interpretive conventions. Even if there is disagreement on what the optimal bundle of conventions looks like, it seems clear that the current bundle – an awkward mishmash of moral philosophy and borrowed policy conventions – is unsustainable, and represents neither a first-best nor second-best vision of what the activity might become.

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  • Anon

    ‘There is probably a higher expectation of clarity from debaters’
    Although this is old…
    Stopped reading there.
    LD is wayyyy clearer than policy.

  • Great article, and I think Alex makes an important point. I am still of the belief that there’s a time and place for speed and gamesmanship in LD, but the activity clearly needs to evolve [One of the great ironies to me is that so many of those who fancy themselves on the cutting edge of debate are really just shameless apologists for the status quo]. I don’t think there are structural reasons preventing this evolution, but the LD community will continue to undergo growing pains. The way people use speed/theory and the way so many judges mindlessly soak it in has mostly to do with cultural factors, in my opinion. No reason our community shouldn’t develop the kind of “interpretive conventions” Alex describes. 

  • Smitty, love the article, appreciate the econ analogy, but would you elaborate on your point about theory? I have watched theory debates in high school policy and they are fucking atrocious. I know they are more abbreviated because there are more commonly accepted norms, but if you can direct me to a video of a good high school policy theory debate please let me know.

    The one thing that is an embarrassment to the (in my opinion generally high) quality theory debates in LD is the widespread acceptance of the RVI. I can’t really understand or comprehend why this trend is occurring, so if you want to hate on that I can’t offer any resistance. I will defend that on the whole LD theory is don better now in high school than policy theory.

    • Very true. Theory debates would improve so much more in quality if only one person could win them.

  • I disagree with the argument that policy isn’t going through theoretical crises the presence of performance affs and micropolitical advocacies that have found their way into policy debate as a result of the involvement of the college circuit getting involved in high school debate has caused quite the rift in the event and often caused people to question the direction the activity is taken. That being said LD certainly needs to -and is in some ways- find its own intellectual identity which I feel like will swiftly develop as debaters realize the strategic value of adopting more philosophically rich advocacies that make policy-esque advocacies less strategic and digging deeper in that direction though grounding those arguments -to avoid it becoming esoteric- doesn’t necessarily require policy argumentation.

    • Are you suggesting that going deeper on philosophy will make the activity less esoteric? That seems counterintuitive to me.

      • Not exactly I am just saying that arguments that are deep philosophically don’t need to be esoteric just explained well in terms that people can relate to without relying on policy esque argumentation to make them more real world. Many of the writers we use to make these incredibly deep argumentation do the same thing to make their work graspable for their readers -e.g. breaking it down in terms of how people relate to each other, examples, favoring concise language over superfluous language-  there is no reason why we can’t do the same thing.

        • Most arguments we consider “esoteric” or “incomprehensible” are that way because people don’t spend the time explaining them and intentionally make things dense when they can usually be explained in pretty simple terms (This generally happens in rebuttals anyways). Sure, simple explanations often are not as accurate but in most rounds that won’t matter and in the rounds that nuances matter then we can safely presume that the complexity of these theories is not an issue.

  • Hey, at least we’re not public forum

  • Two notes about LD vs Polcy. You are correct, there is no 7-4 in policy. In policy the time disparity is 13-5. The reason LD 1AR’s are often so difficult is because the aff said almost nothing of value in the 1AC. Most 1AC’s contain
    -3 or 4 minutes of “pre-empts”- arguments that are totally irrelevant unless the neg does something specific- T is an RVI, skep affirms etc. When the neg does not make these arguments this speech time is totally wasted leaving the aff with 3 minutes left to establish their case
    -of that 3 minutes another 2 is spent on tricks designed to “exclude” or render irrelevant the majority of negative arguments
    -1 minute (most often less) is spent discussing/affirming the topic

    The neg then reads an NC, and makes a million short arguments vs the case. The aff is unable to take the high  ground on these short bad arguments because that is all that was in the AC. The 1AR then has to push all in on theory or start from scratch developing their case.

    There was a similar trend in policy around 2003-2007 when cases consisted of 10-20 bad 2 card nuke war advantages with the hope of overwhelming the neg. In policy it was the emergence of the advantage CP as a dominant strategy that made this approach unsustainable. In LD this strategy has never worked (hence neg win percentage) which begs the question of why people continue to do it.

    To be effective on the aff you need to fully develop a few arguments (2-3). In your 1AR you need to collapse down to 1 or 2, and possibly generate new arguments vs the neg (theory if need be, carded responses to their NC). Then the NR has to actually engage your arguments/develop the debate instead of repeating tag lines and extending dropped 1 liners.

    Second, LD uses a lot of policy terminology that makes no sense at all. When the aff doesn’t have a plan, and the neg doesn’t read a counterplan, and then you have a dicussion of fiat (and pre/post fiat), competition etc. you have turned off the road of reasonableness into nonsense. There is nothing wrong with not reading a plan/eschewing policy arguments, but then don’t try to fit the square peg of policy terms in the round hole of a debate not about policy.

    • Daniel Moerner

      “To be effective on the aff you need to fully develop a few arguments (2-3). In your 1AR you need to collapse down to 1 or 2, and possibly generate new arguments vs the neg (theory if need be, carded responses to their NC). Then the NR has to actually engage your arguments/develop the debate instead of repeating tag lines and extending dropped 1 liners.”

      Good luck with that strategy when the neg reads 10 on your standard and misrepresents all your “well-developed” arguments in the NC. The 1AR will be impossible. People forget that the two biggest things that promote neg side bias are (1) that the standard controls offense in the round, allowing the neg to load up on a huge dump there with basically no opportunity cost, (2) 80% of the time it takes more time to explain why an argument is non-responsive than to make a non-responsive argument. Flexible affs are not enough to stop these problems, but they are really the only hope.

      • The two sources of side bias you isolate are not inevitable structural features of LD. They reflect conventions about how we structure arguments and adjudicate debates. If those conventions are consistenly leading to crappy debates, maybe it’s time for us to rethink those conventions (for instance, I think affs would do themselves a favor by running cases without a value criterion, and deferring the question of impact calculus or impact comparison until the 1AR.) In any case, it’s a sad commentary on our activity if we believe that running a bunch of terrible one-line arguments is the only way to check against the risk that the neg will mischaracterize our good arguments.

        • I agree with smitty’s view here, especially with respect to adjudication. If judges ignored or assigned low weight to non-responsive, poorly developed objections, then debaters’ incentives would be different.

          • Re: RVI

            If the neg spends 3 mins on RVI then they have given a 3 minute rebuttal (since that is pure defense they can’t win on), seems like that is great for the aff. 

            “Good luck with that strategy when the neg reads 10 on your standard and misrepresents all your “well-developed” arguments in the NC. The 1AR will be impossible”

            You don’t need to beat all 10 arguments, you need to beat 1- the argument that their standard somehow precedes/precludes everything you say. Even if you chose to debate the merits of competing standards out, you don’t need to win EVERY argument, you need to win some and argue the ones you are winning o/w arguments the neg may be winning.

            Also, is this comment for real? Good luck when the neg misrepresents your arguments? If affs are unable to explain why 10 bad/non applicable arguments are irrelevant quickly then either the aff sucks or the judge sucks.  As for “flexible affs are the only hope” the track record for that is pretty grim.

            “If judges ignored or assigned low weight to non-responsive, poorly
            developed objections, then debaters’ incentives would be different.”

            Debaters should just say ” group these crappy 1 liners… they are crappy one liners, I made well developed arguments, you should prefer them”. The problem is aff debaters in LD keep trying to respond with crappy quantity with crappy quantity- which they can’t do because they get less speech time.

          • Anonymous

            “If affs are unable to explain why 10 bad/non applicable arguments are irrelevant quickly then either the aff sucks or the judge sucks.”

            Explaining why arguments are non-responsive to things like epistemological frameworks or meta-ethics takes much longer then it does to make such arguments due to their complex nature.

          • People underestimate the value of substantive preempts and preclusion. Everyone on this thread seems to object to lots of crappy one liners and blippy spikes, but we seem to overlook how the aff can use frameworks to counter stupid, blippy negs. I think Daniel got close when he mentioned flexible affs as a solution. Preempts aren’t all crappy blips and oftentimes the best preempts are very well developed substantive arguments. The aff has a very unique advantage in that they can force the neg to engage them. Oftentimes we talk about how the neg is so advantaged because it’s reactive and because of the time skew, but the aff can make that all irrelevant. I would go so far as to contend that reactivity is what gives the Aff an advantage in that they have a 6 minute constructive that shapes the course of the debate. Blip Spreads often have either a) Common warrants or b) lack real impacts and aren’t terrible damning. I think debaters get into trouble because they try to be too conventionally strategic. We’re all taught that the 1AR ought to give itself as many outs as possible but I would contend that a “positional” 1AR can be devastating. It’s commonly accepted that the 2NR can’t make new arguments and so the 1AR basically knows what the 2NR can go for. That means that instead of responding to a shitstorm by trying to win multiple layers, why not try and win one and make the others not matter? If winning an AC framework means the NC offense is irrelevant, then why care about winning turns on the NC? The NC spends time creating lots of layers so the 2NR can strategically collapse down to the ones they are winning, but it seems to me that the 1AR can take the choice way by collapsing first and making the 2NR debate on their terms. Sure, maybe you spend 3 minutes of the 1AR conclusively winning the AC framework and then another 30 seconds winning offense back to that framework. That gives you 30 seconds to explain why your winning the AC means the NC doesn’t matter. All of a sudden the 2NR now cant go for the issues they are most comfortable going for but needs to beat you while you have home field advantage. The moral of the story? In-Depth, substantive, smart AC frameworks allow affs to counter blippy negs since the 2NR will be hardpressed to leverage their blippy NC responses against an in-depth 1AR. Maybe this is just my opinion and really is a terrible strategy, but it’s potentially something to consider.

          • I think the conclusion that “in depth, substantive, and smart AC frameworks” counterbalance against blip spreads is different than your initial statement that pre-empts can be valuable. 

            I think there is a large distinction between a strategic framework or advocacy that limits out neg ground so the 1ar can engage in the type of strategies you are talking about and an aff that spends 3 minutes explaining every negative contingency and how the aff takes that out. the former is way preferable because even if the neg engages in a blip spread or whatever you want to call it you will be ahead on an ethos level and probably a substantive level because your position is well constructed. 

            i think the only time AC should flesh out preclusion or layering if it is consistent with the overall syllogism of their advocacy (i.e. Extinction precedes everything else in a Util Aff). The reason why that works is because that preclusion functions on two levels. Both as offense to you and reason you “outweigh” or “preclude” the AC. I think it is a different story to spend 3 minutes in the aff outlining the common neg positions on the topic and why you take it out. 

            So to conclude, you are right strong positional frameworks or advocacies are good. But those frameworks don’t usually develop preclusion or substantive take outs till the 1AR OR the way they take out NCs is through interacting the offense of their case. 

          • “i think the only time AC should flesh out preclusion or layering if it
            is consistent with the overall syllogism of their advocacy”

            I think we are saying very similar things but in different ways. I wasn’t arguing that frameworks should include tons of negative contingencies but rather that a solidly constructed AC framework  can include substantive preempts to common positions or responses. For instance, constructing a framework which contains skeptical objections and then explaining how the AC framework uniquely solves that objection. Similarly, I have seen practical reason frameworks that argue morality must be based on a priori ideas which then precludes competing frameworks and filters responses to the standard. My initial point was that preempts don’t necessarily need to be short, specific responses to certain positions but rather substantive arguments built into the frameworks themselves.

          • “Debaters should just say ” group these crappy 1 liners… they are crappy one liners, I made well developed arguments, you should prefer them”. The problem is aff ebaters in LD keep trying to respond with crappy quantity with crappy quantity- which they can’t do because they get less speech time.”

            I think this gives the 2N a LOT of leeway to draw new extrapolations from their args. I don’t think this is a good method of combatting the blip spread.

        • Daniel Moerner

          1. I agree with Jake, judges should be more willing to ignore awful arguments. However, the debater can almost never take this for granted, or know which arguments the judge considers under-developed, and which are just 20 seconds in the NR away from “becoming” arguments in the judge’s mind. I am close to using Duby-style mannerisms in round to communicate which arguments I won’t vote on. I think this would be a step in the right direction.

          2. It’s hard to imagine how deferring the question of impact calculus until the 1AR would help solve the problem of the standards debate. It takes time to develop a nuanced and useful framework. 

          3. I never meant to suggest that “running a bunch of terrible one-line arguments is the only way to check against the risk that the neg will mischaracterize our good arguments” when I said that flexible affs are important. I was objecting to Scott’s claim that (carded) answers to NC’s, preclusive arguments, etc. should come in the 1AR.

      • Anonymous

        Even if that’s true of top debaters, it seems like it isn’t true of the very top debaters (Noah, Daniel, etc.). How do those debaters beat blippy 1N’s while running substantive affs with few spikes / theory triggers?

        • By making good, well-supported arguments.

    • Anonymous

      I imagine that we agree on the educational value of preempts, but I think that the speech times of LD make AC preempts strategic in a way that doesn’t apply to policy. 

      The growing trend of AC RVIs is a good example. For an affirmative debater whose case has no preempts, going all in on an RVI in the 1AR is usually very unstrategic. The neg can just unload a large RVI block in the NR along with specific responses on the line-by-line and comparative analysis. A 3 minute investment in the NR here will require at least 2 minutes of the 2AR to answer adequately, assuming the NR hasn’t left doors open to the aff like easily grouped or outweighed arguments. If the aff wins the RVI, they’re likely to lose on the shell itself. Putting the RVI in the AC forces the neg to reveal their cards earlier by reading their RVI answers in the NC. If the neg overcommits, the aff just ignores the RVI. If the neg undercommits, the aff can go for the RVI without the fear of the NR block dump.

      I believe the reason this same logic doesn’t apply in policy (granted, I’ve never debated policy) is the 2AC. The aff reads all their prepared answers to each neg position in the 2AC and then chooses 1-2 specific answers to go for in the 1AR, knowing that the neg is already stuck to the responses they already made in the block. Imagine a policy round without the 2AC or the 2NC-1NR block. Issue selection for the 1AR would be almost impossible. Even if you find the 2 best answers to the neg’s DA, the neg has 6 minutes to answer each of the 2 responses with a 10-point block, making the 2AR much more difficult (especially if that 2AR were 3 minutes long).

    • Very true. 1ARs suck because the conventional 1AC sucks. Put some offense in that case and make it a good argument. Moerner’s concern about argument dumps on the standard becomes less of an issue if the 1AC has good offense. Good offense almost always links to multiple standard, and 9 times out of the 10 it *doesn’t* link to the Neg standard, it’s because the NC has advanced an absurdly narrow or incoherent standard. 1ARs need to call that out and judges need to stop suspending disbelief like cheap, gullible robots.

      • Daniel Moerner

        I basically agree. Having a diversity of offense and being good on the 1AR theory debate are the keys to affirming. But I think that it’s important to start that battle in the AC, with developed offense that link-turns NC’s and some theory arguments against common abusive strategies. There’s a middle ground between the blip spreads of today and an outdated “positional” strategy.

  • Rebar Niemi

    i think it’s clear with the addition of public forum that LD should be allowed to be a middle ground, a “mishmash” so to speak between exclusively social science based debates and persuasion based questions of what we value. also all your args are solved by adding more speeches to LD, which is what we should do ne-way.

    matt is absolutely right that the best part of LD right now is its mutability and diversity of possible args. granted arg diversity means inconsistency and temporary destabilizations in competitive equilibrium – little booms and busts. I like temporary destabilizations as a systems dynamic far more than something with a single-point attractor and a more dramatic stasis-upheaval cycle. In policy debate norms are more fixed and communally ingrained – this is good in some respects. But it also means that competitive inequality is far more likely to become a fixed feature of the system rather than a temporary disturbance which can be overturned naturally. Right now the primary stricture of LD that is creating fixed competitive inequality is the short nature of the speeches and the limited number of them. this environment rewards more arguments and trying to moot large portions of your opponent’s speech by running expansions or theory that you can either win if they drop or won’t go for if they answer. 

    all in all, i think that LD is actually pretty aiight now. The judging isn’t that awesome, we’ve lost a lot of good people, we could use some diversity and inclusiveness, but the variety of debate styles is actually pretty interesting and good educationally I feel like. i found this article interesting although i didn’t necessarily agree with its proposed direction to take as our 2nd best 

    • Extending speech times would possibly be the single greatest thing that could happen to the activity since it would allow more in depth discussion of philosophical issues and would also eliminate the need for frameworks to be tricky and preclusive and would actually make these kinds of frameworks less strategic since debaters would have more time to engage them.

      • Anonymous

        I definitely agree with longer speech times in theory. However, single-flighting rounds would essentially double the required judge-to-debater ratio. Policy can manage to single-flight because there are 4 debaters per round, meaning it only requires about half as many judges. Across the board speech time changes in LD, on the other hand, would likely run into too many logistical problems to be viable. Nevertheless, it might still be desirable for individual tournament directors to adjust speech times at their own events, provided they have the logistical ability.

  • We also need to remember that LD, especially progressive LD, is a relatively new invention when compared to policy debate and therefore is still undergoing rapid evolution. Moreover, one aspect that I personally enjoy about LD is that it does seem to be a melting pot of different styles of debate. This lack of clear definition, unlike policy in which there is a clear format for how one affirms/negates, allows LD to be flexible and allows debaters to innovate and conceptualize strategy in unique ways. While we seem to hit turbulence with cheap shot and undeveloped arguments, abusive strategies etc. the fact that these strategies exist are testament to the sandbox nature of the activity and the flexibility and creativity it allows debaters. Theory then seems to be an inevitable byproduct of LD since creativity often involves pushing the strategic envelope in ways that some members of the community will object to and attempts to eliminate strategies that are bad for debate (I recognize that these strategies still are utilized and win lots of rounds, but I feel like that would be true regardless of the activity since the best technical debaters will always be able to push the envelope more and more. For example, a good policy team may be able to get away with running a less topical 1AC than a mediocre policy team). I feel like complaints about the direction of LD presume that LD should try to be like other forms or conceptions of debate without recognizing that LD is inherently its own activity and thus will evolve as such and presumably, like many things, improve over time via trial and error.