By: Jonathan Fried
In April 2010, Anna Tsiotsias (C’14) and Frances Rodriguez (C’15) faced off in the final round of twelve at the prestigious high school debate Tournament of Champions. The event was Congressional Debate, and the first mock bill on the agenda proposed capping non-defense discretionary spending. Their four-minute speeches were eloquent and fast-paced, their arguments rigorously substantiated and complex; both peppered the judges with sources ranging from the Congressional Research Service to a professor at Purdue University and a slew of books.
“I urge you to stand with me and affirm this legislation,” declared “Senator” Rodriguez, because “focusing on reducing federal spending and the deficit is the best means by which to recognize… that this Congress is fiscally irresponsible.” Speaking for the negative side, “Senator” Tsiotsias countered with a flurry of well-sourced and tightly reasoned refutations. The bill, she concluded, would leave “millions of people without the social services they desperately need, hurting your constituents and mine.” Ms. Tsiotsias took second place at the tournament and at nationals that year; Ms. Rodriguez repeated the feat a year later.
Unlike this policy debate, our contemporary national political debates too seldom focus on the costs and benefits of actual policy issues. The brilliance and wit of these two ex-high school debaters creates a stark contrast with our national discourse, which is often devoid of substance and focuses more on amorphous values than policy itself. Take, for example, John Boehner’s July 2011 primetime speech on the debt ceiling, in which he proposes discretionary spending cuts as part of a “Cut, Cap, and Balance” plan. He argues that the plan would “boost confidence in our economy, renew a measure of faith in our government, and help small businesses get back on track”, but fails to explain why. “Tax increases… destroy jobs,” he intones, “the bigger government, the smaller the people.” Despite the immense complexity of the United States’ fiscal woes, Boehner assures his audience that “the solution… is not complicated: if you’re spending more money than you’re taking in, you need to spend less of it.” The speech, in short, was the antithesis of a good high school debate. Claims were made without justification or data, issues were grossly oversimplified, and values replaced logic. Oversimplification for the sake of easy comprehension left this speech bereft of substance like so many others made by elected officials and cable’s talking heads on a daily basis.
High school debaters are the paragon for what our national debates should be. At least they debate. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney seldom engaged in what could be called a “debate”; they talked past one another, taking care to attack their opponent’s character more often than their actual policy positions. Instead, they should have addressed their respective opponent’s arguments directly and refuted them when possible. They should have explained why their proposals would have produced their purported effects (for example, why Mitt Romney’s five-point plan would have created twelve million jobs). And they should have cited their sources. Would it have been equally scintillating primetime television? Perhaps not. But it would have been far more educational and useful to the undecided voter.
Ben Lerner aptly sums up this phenomenon in a Harper’s Magazine piece entitled “Contest of Words.” A former national champion speaker himself, Mr. Lerner describes a “fearful symmetry between the ideological compartmentalization of high school debate and what passes for our national political discourse”, referring to the emergence of Lincoln Douglas Debate in 1979 as an alternative to Policy Debate that emphasized values and oratorical persuasion rather than the actual effects of policies. “Our politicians speak… about values utterly disconnected from their policies,” argues Mr. Lerner, creating an “impoverished political discourse” which “compensates for the disastrous effects of our policies.”
Neither high school debaters nor politicians are policy experts. At the Tournament of Champions, explains Mr. Lerner, speeches require “decisiveness: clear rather than complex answers [win] rounds.” Debaters learn “to stud a speech with sources the way a politician reaches for statistics—to provide the effect of authority more than to illuminate an issue or settle a point of fact.” But at least the high schoolers acknowledge this by explicitly citing their sources.
Plenty of substantive policy discussions take place at the highest echelons of government. But much of what the American public hears today is propositions of value, devoid of specificity and warrants. Solving our nation’s numerous pressing problems requires having difficult, reasoned, and honest discussions, both at the dinner table and in Congress. Our interests are best served when our elected representatives include us in a candid conversation, and value problem solving more than principled posturing.
Photo credit: Flickr user borman818
This article originally appeared in the winter edition of PPR on March 11, 2013.