The Basic Structure of Policy Debate

The Basic Structure of the Debate

There are four popular types of high school debate – policy debate, Lincoln-Douglas, Congressional Debate, and Public Forum Debate. 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, school district, or other entity (it can be an after school program (rules of tournament entry vary by region and tournament)) 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)
3 minutes

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)
3 minutes

First Negative Rebuttal (1NR)
5 minutes

First Affirmative Rebuttal (1AR)
5 minutes

Second Negative Rebuttal (2NR)
5 minutes

Second Affirmative Rebuttal (2AR)
5 minutes

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 5, 8, or 10 minutes.

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

The Affirmative

The job of the affirmative in the debate is to support the resolution, and more specifically (and importantly) a particular plan, that falls within the resolution. This year’s policy debate resolution is, “Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its funding and/or regulation of elementary and/or secondary education in the United States.”

Affirmative teams 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, argue that we should increase school choice opportunities for students.

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 all students, regardless of income, should have the opportunity to choose a school of their own, including private schools, and that the public subsidy of tuition should follow the students where they go.

The affirmative’s arguments are bounded by what the resolution means. Under this year’s resolution, for example, proposing to give foreign aid to Africa would be “out of bounds.” If an affirmative’s arguments are “out of bounds” they are “not-topical.” Affirmatives are required to advance topical plans.

[Note: In some circuits within Policy debate, certain individuals have started arguing that it is actually bad to debate the topic because it leaves out particular points of view and/or may force people to argue for things they do not believe.  The merits of this approach will be covered in other posts, but for the purpose of this discussion, I think we can continue on with the idea that it is reasonable for people to debate the topic].

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.

A sample 1AC look to establish these basic arguments —

*Inherency — Not enough support for school choice now
*Plan — The federal government should provide more support for school choice
*Harms — (1) Without school choice, poor students lack equitable opportunities for strong educational experiences. (2) Without improvements to the nation’s educational system, the nation’s economy will decline.

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 policy debate. 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. 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 basic job of the negative is to defeat the affirmative by arguing that we should not support change or that we should support a different proposal than the one offered by the affirmative.

The negative can defeat the affirmative in a variety of ways.

Topicality argument(s). Negative teams can prove that affirmative teams are “non-topical” by presenting a topicality argument that demonstrates that the affirmative does not fit within the constraints of the resolution. Affirmatives that propose giving food aid to Africa on a topic that deals with increasing funding for education obviously have nothing to do with the resolution and a team is unlikely to take such a radical approach. What is more likely, however, is for affirmatives to push the bounds of the topic by only increasing the amount of funding by a minor amount. Negatives can argue that this type of affirmative does not support a “substantial” increase. As discussed in the topicality chapter, there are always a number of topicality arguments at-play.

Disadvantage(s). The negative can present disadvantages. A disadvantage is a negative argument that proves that the affirmative plan is undesirable. It is really one of the simplest ideas in debate – it is an argument about a negative consequence that will result from adopting the affirmative’s plan.

It is important to note that any given disadvantage alone is not necessarily a reason to vote negative.. Negatives must argue that the disadvantage proves that the affirmative’s plan is net-undesirable – that the costs outweigh the benefits. To continue with the example above, the negative would need to prove that it is better to buy the pair of shorts with the money than not the shirt.

One popular disadvantage  is spending — greater spending on education may, for example, trade-off with social spending.

Critiques/Kritik(s). It is difficult to say exactly what a kritik is. Kritiks have taken many forms in debate, and the popularity of many has come and gone.   Generally, a kritik is a philosophical objection to some element of the other team’s arguments. Initially, critiques were only advanced by negative, but now critiques are also commonly advanced by the affirmative.

On the education topic, teams may argue that the educational system entrenches/supports a capitalist model of economic growth and that capitalism is bad.  As an alternative, the negative may suggest a move away from capitalism (kritik alternatives are usually rather vague).

Counterplan(s). A counterplan is an alternative plan to the affirmative plan that is advanced by the negative. The most essential defining element of a counterplan is that it is competitive – the negative must prove that the counterplan is better than the affirmative plan or a combination of the plan and all or part of the counterplan.

On the education topic, the negative may say, for example, that the states should act to increase education funding rather than the federal government.

Topicality arguments, disadvantages, counterplans, and critiques are “off-case” arguments and are presented first in the 1NC. Negatives can present any number or combination of each, though the legitimacy of suggesting multiple counterplans is something that is hotly contested. Since there are no rules in debate, you will need to be prepared to defend it if your strategy includes multiple counterplans .

After presenting off-case positions, the 1NC then will proceed to attack the 1AC itself, making as many arguments as possible against the inherency, harms, significance, and solvency. The 1NC should be prepared to answer basic questions from the 1AC.

After the 2AC responds to the negative arguments, the negative must be prepared to defend them in the two speeches that follow – the 2NC and the 1NR. You can think of both of the speeches as one giant rebuttal where both debaters answer the 2AC arguments.

These two speeches are usually the hardest for beginning debaters to give because they require them to be able to respond point by point to specific 2AC arguments. In your first few debates, do the best you can to answer each of the 2AC arguments.

In the 2NR the negative needs highlight their major arguments and explain why, on the whole, the affirmative’s plan is a bad idea. The negative does not need to win every argument that they advance in the debate, but they do need to win enough arguments to prove that the affirmative’s plan is net-undesirable.


The point of this chapter was to give you a basic idea what a debate looks like and what the job of each side and debater is. Specific advice for how to debate particular types of arguments, and more on the responsibilities of each speaker, follow.