Future of L-D Debate: Battle of Wills or Battle of Facts

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I competed in Lincoln-Douglas debate from 1998 to 2001. Having just visited the New Jersey State Tournament and discussed L-D with current members, I'm hearing that the category is experiencing quite a bit of change. Specifically, most arguments are now expected to be supported with research and backed up with hard facts - or what are called "warrants."

This update is complete news to me and entirely different from L-D debate when I competed. It was an entirely values-based debate that relied on philosophical arguments and logical persuasion.

So, I guess the question becomes: Is this change for the better or worse? Should Lincoln-Douglas debate stay a values-based philosophical type of debate? Or should it move more in the direction of the other forms of debate that require backup with hard facts?

While I'm not entirely sure what has caused this shift and how formal or official is the change, I strongly prefer the old method. Yes, the old method is more vague. Yes, it's more subtle. Yes, it can be extremely frustrating since there are few global standards and judging must always remain at least to a certain degree subjective. But these qualities are also partially what make it so exciting. There was something really special and exhilarating about walking into any round and knowing you had the potential to defeat your opponent. It's kind of like football - on any given Sunday, any team can win. In any given debate, even up against a national finalist, you had the potential to outmaneuver your opponent. Therein lies the beauty of it; since you never really know the style of your opponent, and they didn't know your style, you always have the opportunity to find holes in your opponent's arguments and break apart his case.

If debate shifts to everything relying on facts, this nuanced character is lost. Competition becomes a matter of who does the most exhaustive research and preparation - and not who performs the best during the round. Lincoln-Douglas should be about being tested on the spot; not about how many hours of your life you crammed to research every possible fact related to the resolution. Let's keep the old values-based philosophical debate we all know and loved. Lincoln-Douglas should remain a battle of wills and not a battle over facts.

I agree with you completely, and I'm glad to see your side of it. I've been doing my part to keep LD true value debate, both intentionally and by way of, in the standard Opi fashion, last-minute casewriting. Sometimes this has worked out very well for me. As I've found out, state champions are often not capable of rebutting original points with creative logical reasoning. Other times it has killed me; when an untrained judge resolves to choose between expert quotes and high schoolers' analysis, we all know which tends to win out. I don't know how many debaters have asked to disregard my points based on lack of evidential support, only to claim that I "dropped" a card despite me addressing the corresponding subpoint. Unhappily, both for me and for the future of debate, most judges will listen to the other debater. My worst problem lately has been with judges (generally, I think, former debaters and current coaches) who fill in their own blanks, allowing debaters to trade logical warrants for cards and neglect impacts altogether. In my view, these judges are trying to debate the rounds themselves as opposed to objectively watching the rounds, extending the arguments that are won properly, dropping those which are not warranted or impacted, and deciding based on the flow, not on what they THOUGHT should have been on the flow. Nonetheless, I've had several old-school judges compliment my logically consistent argumentation and express gratitude for my style of debate. I feel as though the problem stems mostly from 1) over-coaching and over-preparing debaters and 2) a high, high level of competition in a highly competitive event, each leading some debaters to feel that they must put in more time and more effort. This results in painstakingly researched, exceedingly technical debate with little character or personal touch. While many debaters like this win their rounds, they are not being true to the spirit of LD and are counterproductive to the goals of debate. I was only coached for one year, and by a relatively relaxed student, so this could explain my style. I've rambled, but my point remains, that I hope debate can return from the realm of multiple constructives, pre-prepared rebuttals, and lots and lots of cards to one of clashing, values, and most of all, logic.

I was actually not aware of this shift, as I've been in my own little world of PF for the past three years. I always figured that PF was created in part to create a category that "strips resolutions from the headlines", allowing students to base evidence in facts, quotes, etc...and to preserve the logical warrants of LD. it is quite possible that the plan backfired, and LD has absorbed some tactics of PF preparation over the past few years.

Now, as far as which style of debate I prefer...it's really hard to say considering I've never been in an LD round. I really admire LD-ers, and I imagine it is a lot of fun to utilize logic to the full extent. And yes, I can't tell you how many times i've been screwed in a round because my opponents threw a bunch of stats in their case without any sort of form/strategy, and the judge thought that made them well-prepared. but in PF, if you deploy good strategy, rather then just throwing cards on the table...having evidence can be somewhat comforting. The strategy is simple, for each contention - you make an assertion (logic), you back it up (evidence...don't overload on stats cause the judge will get bored...quoting Dr. Ariel Cohen gets bonus points), and explain it's importance to the judge (why you win the round). that formula doesn't just allow for success...it makes PF fun, especially when you're up against a team that makes use of the same concept. much to my dismay, that doesn't happen often enough. all to often, instead of my opponents debating contentions or subpoints, they debate the legitimacy of my statistics or whose evidence prevails *insert sad face*.

I read a very interesting article in The Rostrum (yes, I'm THAT much of a Forensics nerd) this afternoon about a different shift in LD debate, specifically the shift from LD as a category of persuasion to one of complex argumentation at the expense of speech. The author, who apparently debated prehistoric LD in the 1980s, wrote about how LD used to be as much about persuasive speaking and argumentation than logic and warrants and barrages of complicated philosophical terms. While better speaking would be nice, it simply is not a reality in today's Lincoln-Douglas. I DO miss being able to speak slowly and clearly in Novice, but cramming in multi-leveled rebuttals and defenses in the criminally short four minute first affirmative rebuttal is infinitely more important (and more essential to winning the round) than inflection or eye contact. I groan every time a judge tells me that he or she cannot flow speed, and I can't tell you how many points I've dropped because of it. The Lincoln-Douglas debates of yesteryear (the real ones) required the participants to win over an audience. Despite the insistence of the author, today's LD is (or should be) more about the flow than the person writing it. The author attributes these changes to the osmosis of Lincoln-Douglas and Policy debate, and he's absolutely correct. From everything I can tell, the LD transformations I spoke of (complicated theoretical frameworks, over-reliance on cards, and increasingly technical debates), as well as the author in The Rostrum (spreading, disregarding of speaking skill, and higher-level philosophic speech), may be traced back to the primary tenets of Policy. While I agree with the author to an extent (yes, I do value speaking, and yes, LD would sometimes benefit from more simplicity and less complicated frameworks and paradigms), I believe he was flawed in his assertion that LD is better off as it was. I was taught in a way advocating speed-reading, complexity of ideas, and arcane (but practical) philosophy. Then again, I was not first taught until 2006, well after the transformations claimed by the author took hold. Still, though, I defend LD's current form, even if I don't appreciate what many debaters have done with it. I certainly still provides for speaking and rhetorical skill, and many judges way it even more heavily than they are instructed to, never mind the subconscious impact it has upon decisions. The real focus of LD, however, is not to speak well or tip the scale in your direction as in PF; it is to filter warranted contentions through a value system to prove one conclusion preferable to another, an adequate reflection of how the human mind should make decisions. I find proper LD debate to be among the best indicators of the optimal because it does not just ask for reasons, but asks participants to impact there reasons to a value system in order to determine what "optimal" means, what is necessary to achieve the optimal, and which side best achieves it. If all major policy decisions were preceded by masterful Lincoln-Douglas debates, I believe that the world would be much better off than it is today. As I see it, Public Forum was created to combine speaking/rhetorical ability with argumentative prowess, and it seems to do that very well. There is certainly a place for this kind of debate, but, with no malice intended, I have no desire for the Sophistic Public Forum to pollute the inherently Socratic Lincoln-Douglas. In any event, while I don't agree with much of it, the tearing apart of the style of debate that I advocate was sobering-not that it changed my opinions at all, I'm far too stubborn (read: LD-like) for that.

Hey Scott,

Very well-put. You make some very compelling points. In particular, I found this section really profound -

"The real focus of LD, however, is not to speak well or tip the scale in your direction as in PF; it is to filter warranted contentions through a value system to prove one conclusion preferable to another, an adequate reflection of how the human mind should make decisions. I find proper LD debate to be among the best indicators of the optimal because it does not just ask for reasons, but asks participants to impact there reasons to a value system in order to determine what "optimal" means, what is necessary to achieve the optimal, and which side best achieves it. "

I think I always agreed with this deep-down but never quite knew how to express what always drew me to L-D so much. I think you hit it right on the nose. What I loved so much about it was that all of your arguments had to fit into a logical-value framework. It all came back to the values and how everything fit together. So building your affirmative-negative cases was really about making a small tight-knit philosophy (values) with supporting arguments (contentions). Everything had to fit together in one coherent whole. That's what makes it so interesting. Because then you have to find holes and prick apart your opponent's philosophy.

Anyways, it's interesting to hear what the Rostrum had to say and clearly you have a lot of really deep thoughts on debate. You should definitely get your blog going on all your Debate thoughts, especially commentary on the Rostrum. I'm sure people would be really curious to hear what you have to say and you would very quickly make it to the top of the Best Debate Blogs list! ;)


PS - As for speaking fast, I'll never forget one unforgettable round (I believe it was Harvard) where I went against an opponent from Texas who spoke faster than I thought was humanly possible. I think I laughed when he first started speaking because I wasn't sure if this was one big joke. Plus, I could barely make out a word. I quickly realized the guy was for real and the judge thought nothing of his speed, meaning it was game on. I put up my best fight but the judge disclosed and I lost by a small margin.

I clearly remember quoting professor Nancy Wallace in probably all of my debates...

How do the judges have any idea if these facts are true? I find this shift appalling, and if I was in high school again I would protest this awful burden of producing "warrants." Just awful.

And PS I hit a similar fast talker with "cards" or something ridiculous at Penn. Freaking debaters.

When I saw this, I first thought Nancy Wallace was a new user on the site, and I was ready to consider my life an official success. Perhaps some day...

Yeah, I almost forgot about some of the shady things that went on. The Segall Legacy is tainted ;)

But in all seriousness, it's true. In our day (I sound like a grandpa), facts were hardly taken seriously at all. They were an afterthought. And the prospect of making up facts, honestly, just wasn't even a big deal because noone really cared about facts. I guess this showed just how little evidence actually mattered.

As a current Lincoln-Douglas debater, I have to disagree a bit with the idea of how LD has changed. While this system seems typical for me as it existed with my very introduction to debate, it appears LD has made a large transition from now to even just 5 or 4 years ago - yet we shouldn't lament the death of pure-value and logical argumentation anytime soon.

However first things first - what you've encountered is "circuit" LD debate. While very technical and nuanced, it actually isn't only about cards/evidence (although they are commonly used) - they are part of LD's shift towards a more technical-based flow game. However, a fundamental part of circuit, I'd say in fact the more important part is that without cards. For one, framework is critical, 90% of which goes without cards; this creates the very method in which judges address the round, a key factor in every debate. Furthermore, general analytics are still fundamental - it's not the evidence itself that has inherent value, but the "offense" garnered off it. Another thing: "warrant" doesn't refer to just cards - it's a general term referring to the part of an argument that explains why it is true (hence cards can fill this position).

On the other hand, though, there's much more than just circuit. On the local level, state in most cases (TFA not so much :P), and the national qualifying levels of LD, slow-debate is really the only option, since parents are the predominant demographic of judges. Persuasion, then, is obviously key to winning them over rather than a bombardment of 10 pieces of evidence in 2 minutes.

Overall, LD requires a key ability to adapt to one's judge. Funnily enough I disagree with both the idea that LD has only degraded into circuit/evidence-only as well as the comment stating that circuit-only is the way to go. The fact remains that you shouldn't groan at having a "lay" judge - the goal of debate is to convince someone, that someone being the judge, and thus adaptability is a key debate skill too.

Finally, the only reason evidence inherently would be useful is if one uses logic to ensure that it is so. Again, it's all about framework. One can point out that empirical evidence is key to substantiating arguments, as without it, arguments remain only vague hypothetical assertions and cannot be thought to be true alone (I commonly use the example that one might logically think the world is flat, but scientific evidence proves it is not). On the other hand, one can also easily argue that evidence isn't worth anything, because empirical data is based on context, of which is hugely varying from situation to situation, as well as having the results of any evidence being influenced by thousands of differing variables that show how something might not necessarily be proved true by evidence, such as through fallacies of false causality, or other extraneous influences.

But the reason why I like LD is that it's completely malleable to however you shape the debate - your frameworks, your logical analysis and such determine whether it will be evidence-laden, or evidence-free; it's all about your style and your reasoning.

hey Dtran,

I definitely agree in a lot of ways. Its very true that its all about the values framework and how you coose to integrate evidence. And I totally agree that a large portion of success is a result of catering to judges. Its just a part of the game.

And as a present debator, your opinions are probably much more informed than my own. My commentary was largely based on conversations with current LD debators.

Thanks for the thoughts and your clarification on circuit debate.


One of my few regrets in forensics was never getting to see a round of LD. It always seemed to be fascinating that two people could fight relentlessly about moral issues in the format of the Lincoln-Douglas debates which occurred almost 150 years ago.

As a Lincoln-Douglas Debater who got 20th in the Nation this previous year, I can tell you that LD is now like one-man policy.

At Nationals, I was forced to speed read evidence in response to my opponent speeding about Military Conscription leading to Dehumanization leading to genocide leading to extinction.

At Nationals, more than one opponent asked me how I would implement the draft for the US- asking specifically for a plan.

At Nationals, the person who got 4th in the Nation from Colorado DROPPED HIS VALUE CRITERION and still won a round against me- which the 2 Policy judges allowed but the LD judge in the room was shocked by.

I went in there with no "plan", no experience "Speed-reading", just a huge knowledge of philosophy. Though traditional LD worked for me, judging on the judge's paradigms- it won't work for everybody.

To be GOOD at LD, you have to be able to debate it as traditional Value Debate and you have to be able to debate it as one-man policy debate. Otherwise...you'll lose.

Interesting, Devin. It seems the truth is that it really has changed and now relies heavily on evidence. That's a shame. The beauty of LD really lay in its philosophical reasoning and the thrill of being able to walk into any round knowing you had the potential to win. Soon enough, it will be the people who give away their social life to research every possible fact. I wouldn't even rule out super-competitive-freaks outsourcing some of their research. Congrats on 20th though, good to see that the traditional style can at least make it far.

Anony's picture

I can't say that I'm 20th in the nation, or any such claims. What I can say is that I've placed first in my local tournaments multiple times, and am currently undefeated in the (12) rounds I've debated in. People tell me I'm at a disadvantage because I'm not a "fast-talker" or because rather than go straight into the resolution, I'll take a minute to pontificate about its moral ramifications. Does this make me a bad debater? Should I change my style to speed-talking just because everyone else is? The local schools I debate against seem to have a strategy of intimidation and speed. However, when it comes to basic logic and reasoning, their contentions easily fall.

I came to this website looking for help with the current resolution, but soon got caught up in reminisces of LD past. Although I can't really contribute to this nostalgia, being only a freshman debater, I'd just like to thank the contributors for reinforcing my belief that I am not the only one who thinks LD has fallen. I recently saw (and okay, you can laugh) the Great Debaters, and it made me both proud to be a debater, and sad because those teams were the best in the country, and they talked at a human speed. I had been contemplating using speed-talking in my next tournament, but I'd like to (get to the point and) thank everyone here for helping me decide not to give up on my individual style. It seems to work, so why not, right?



Changing your style just to fit in with what is fashionable is never a good idea.  Not trying to knock "fast-talkers" or those of the "human" speed variety, but any debater with a weak argument should lose to someone who makes a better case.  BS comes in many forms and either trying to fly by judges with fast talk, or smooth them over with flowery language, all has a place and time.  But really, it's the support and argument you bring that should be the determining factor for a victory.

Glad to see you have integrity and are sticking to a style that is your own.   


Anony's picture

I have no problem with slower debates or more philosophical ones, but I don't think returning to this "traditional" debate that some are proposing is in any way a good idea. It's just down-right illogical. If you want to try your lot at being a persuasive speaker, participate in Impromptu, Original Oratory, Extemporaneous Speaking, or even (to an unfortunate extent) Public Forum debate. Lincoln Douglas DEBATE should be about just that: debating. The judge should vote for the person who wins the ARGUMENTS that matter, not the person who sounds better. Hopefully that much should be obvious. Stupid traditional customs just hinder debaters' ability to make logical arguments.


For example, why can't you DROP YOUR VALUE CRITERION (OMG!!!) and still win? The only logical way to interpret that is, instead of determining the round based on your opponent's criterion, the judge should vote for the person who better meets YOUR criterion. Why is it impossible for your opponent to show that he better meets your criterion? Did you call "dibs" on it? Maybe your little "tradition" makes it seem like dropping the criterion is a bad thing, but it makes no logical sense for dropping the criterion to equal an automatic loss. I ABHOR stupid customs like this because all they do is detract from any logical, coherent debate.

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