The Basic Structure of Policy Debate

There are three popular types of high school debate – Policy Debate, Lincoln-Douglas, World Schools, and Big Questions. This book is focused on policy debate.

Policy debate is a “team” activity. Team means that you debate with a partner. It’s two on two – two people defend the affirmative and two people defend the negative. Each two-person team from a given school or school district makes-up a larger squad that you are a part of.

Each person in the debate gets one constructive speech, one rebuttal speech, is asked questions for three minutes by the opposing side after his or her constructive speech and has one three-minute opportunity to ask questions of the other side. A debate lasts approximately an hour and a half and is broken down in the following way:

First Affirmative Constructive (1AC)

8 minutes

Cross Examination of the 1AC (by the 2NC)

3 minutes

First Negative Constructive (1NC)

Cross examination of the 1NC (by the 1AC)

3 minutes

Second Affirmative Constructive (2AC)

8 minutes

Cross Examination of the 2AC (by the 1NC)

Second Negative Constructive (2NC)

8 minutes

Cross Examination of the 2NC (by the 2AC)

First Negative Rebuttal (1NR)

5 minutes

First Affirmative Rebuttal (1AR)

5 minutes

Second Negative Rebuttal (2NR)

5 minutes

Second Affirmative Rebuttal (2AR)

5 minutes

Preparation Time

Each time also receives a “bank” of preparation time that partners divide amongst themselves in any way that they wish to prepare for speeches during the course of the debate. The amount of preparation times varies by tournament but is usually either 8 or 10 minutes.

The responsibilities of each side and speaker are generally discussed in the next section and in more detail in following chapters.

The Affirmative

The job of the Affirmative is to support the resolution, and more specifically (and importantly) with a particular plan, that falls within the resolution.

This year’s (2024-5) policy debate resolution is “The United States federal government should significantly strengthen its protection of domestic intellectual property rights in copyrights, patents, and/or trademarks.” A longer essay on the topic is available here.

Affirmatives will not support the resolution in general but will find an instance of the resolution and argue it is a good idea. They will argue, for example, contend that the government should allow AI agents to file for patents or argue that AI companies can’t train their models on the works of authors and artists without the permission of those authors and artists.

The affirmative’s proposal – their plan — will advocate change away from the status quo – the present world that we live in. They will say that currently there is currently no protection for authors who want to prevent AI companies from training their models on it.

The affirmative’s arguments are bounded by what the resolution means. Under this year’s resolution, for example, proposing to increase the number of persons serving in the military would be “out of bounds.” If an affirmative’s arguments are “out of bounds” they are “not-topical.” Affirmatives are general required to advance topical plans, though, as you will discover, there now is some controversy related to this with “kritik” debating.

The first affirmative speech in the debate (1AC) is a pre-prepared, “canned” speech. In this speech the affirmative identifies an important problem that needs to be solved, argues that the problem will not currently be solved, suggests a solution for solving the problem, and argues that the solution will be able to overcome the problem.

The affirmative’s identification of an important problem supports its need to prove significance and harms. Arguments that claim that the government is not currently addressing the problem or supporting the solution prove inherency. Support for the idea that the affirmative’s proposal will fix the problem proves solvency.

Significance, harms, inherency, and solvency are all stock issues — essential things that the affirmative must prove in its first speech. Topicality is also a stock issue but does not have to be addressed in the first speech. The affirmative will have to prove it is topical if challenged, however.

The specific proposal the affirmative makes is called the plan. The plan is a basic description (anywhere from one sentence to a paragraph) that outlines the affirmative’s proposal for change.

Affirmative teams must prove each of the stock issues in the 1AC with supporting quotes – evidence. They should be prepared to answer general questions about their 1AC during the cross-examination.

The job of the 2AC is to respond to all of the arguments presented in the 1NC. Although it is formally called a “constructive” speech, it is best to think of the 2AC as a rebuttal because that is the way that it functions in modern debate – the 2AC rebuts the 1NC arguments. Ways of answering many different types of negative arguments, and general suggestions for giving a strong 2AC, are discussed throughout the rest of the book. 2ACs also need to be prepared to answer basic questions about their speech and then to ask questions of the 2NC.

After the 2AC, the negative presents back-to-back speeches (the 2NC and 1NR). This is thirteen minutes of speech time that is called the negative block (sometimes simply referred to as the “block”).

The affirmative speech that follows (the 1AR) is only five minutes long. Although the speech is only five minutes long, affirmatives are still required to answer all of the negative’s arguments in the 2AC and 1AR. To do this in only five minutes, the affirmative must be selective and choose to defend their best arguments against negative positions. There is little time for eloquence in the 1AR – debaters must focus on direct refutation of specific arguments.

The 2AR is the final speech in the debate. In this speech, teams must argue why the judge should vote for their side in light of negative arguments. In addition to refuting the specific arguments the 2NR chooses to make, 2ARs must explain why the overall benefits of the proposal outweigh the problems associated with it.

The Negative

The job of the Negative in a policy debate is primarily to refute and challenge the Affirmative team’s case arguing, in most instances, that it is undesirable to support it.

Some key responsibilities of the Negative include:

  1. Questioning the Topicality (T) of the Affirmative plan: The Negative may argue that the Affirmative’s proposal or plan is not within the scope or boundaries set by the resolution, making it “not-topical” or out of bounds.
  2. Refuting the Stock Issues:
    • Significance and Harms: The Negative will attempt to undermine the Affirmative’s arguments that the problem they identified is significant or causing substantial harms.
    • Inherency: The Negative will argue that the current system or status quo is already addressing or can address the problem, so the Affirmative’s plan is not necessary.
    • Solvency: The Negative will challenge the Affirmative’s claims that their proposed plan can effectively solve the identified problem.
  3. Presenting Disadvantages (Disads): The Negative will introduce arguments and evidence that the Affirmative’s plan may have negative consequences or disadvantages that outweigh the proposed benefits.
  4. Offering Counterplans: The Negative may propose alternative solutions or counterplans that could solve the problem more effectively or with fewer disadvantages than the Affirmative’s plan.
  5. Responding to the Affirmative’s Arguments: Throughout the debate, the Negative must directly refute and respond to the arguments and evidence presented by the Affirmative team in their speeches.

The Negative typically presents their initial arguments and evidence in the 1NC (First Negative Constructive) speech and the 2NC (Second Negative Constructive) speech, which together form the “Negative Block.” The 1NR (First Negative Rebuttal) and 2NR (Second Negative Rebuttal) speeches are used to further develop and extend their arguments in response to the Affirmative’s rebuttals.

Overall, the Negative’s role is to critically analyze and challenge the Affirmative’s case, presenting strong arguments and evidence to persuade the judge that the Affirmative’s plan should not be adopted or that the disadvantages outweigh the potential benefits.