This blog is called The Debate Link.
That's no accident.
I started this blog when I was eighteen, just after graduation, when debate was the activity that most defined my high school experience. It was something I did nearly every weekend for four years, travelling all across the country. I was nationally-ranked. I won tournaments at both the local and national level. I wasn't just a "debater". I was, if I do say so myself, a pretty elite debater.
This blog was in many ways a continuation of that experience, and an attempt to fill its void. Its initial tagline was "The arguments, made by and for the debating public." In fact, here's my very first post, from way back in 2004:
Hey everyone! My name is David, and I am an ex-debater from Bethesda MD. My 4 years of debate has given me a healthy appreciation of the issues that concern America, and a desire to share some of the better arguments on some those issues I've come accross during those years. So hopefully, whenever I come up with a good idea (or stumble across someone else's), I'll post it on here.
See you soon,
(How adorable was I? Seriously.)
It is impossible to overstate the degree to which high school debate was formative in my life. It taught me how to think. It taught me how to write. It generated friendships that persist to this day. It even, indirectly, made me realize I wanted to be a law professor. There are few facets of David Schraub 2023 that are not in some way traceable to David Schraub, high school debater.
High school debate is having a moment in the news, prompted by this article by James Fishback chronicling an alleged takeover of the events by the radical left. I want to comment on his piece and his allegations, as well as on some commentary given by Kristen Soltis Anderson, who I knew and competed against in my generation of debate.
There are few reasons to read Fishback's account with grains of salt, beyond the obvious fact that he is at the helm of an insurgent competitor to the established National Speech and Debate Association (formerly known as the National Forensics League) and so has a vested incentive in undermining it.
First, whenever I read accounts like this about craziness allegedly afflicting student-centered activities, I always ask myself "what are the students saying?" Do the actual students involved share the perception that high school debate is rotting from the inside out? Or is their view that these accounts are misleading, exaggerated, and not reflective of what's actually happening on the ground? I certainly remember from my student days how frequent it was that I'd read breathless accounts about "what was going on" at my school or in my club or on my campus that bore zero relationship to what I actually saw. Once I was no longer a student, I still tried to remember that experience -- how many times have the "adults" parachuted in to "solve" problems at schools or on campus in cases where the actual putative victims have been screaming "you are not helping!" The older I get, the harder it will be to remember that instinct, but for the moment I can still rage against the dying of the light. And to that end, it is notable that Fishback's post contains very little in the way of contemporary student commentary or support indicating that they share his view about either the gravity or ubiquity of the problems he identifies -- a failure which makes me profoundly skeptical of whether he's accurately describing the underlying reality.
Second, I also remember to beware of apocryphal anecdotes. I doubt there has ever been a generation of debaters that didn't have stories about the lurid, ridiculous, extreme-performative arguments that supposedly were winning rounds left and right. In my generation, I distinctly recall a story circulating about a debater who simply wrote "Rwanda. Rwanda. Rwanda." on the board over and over again in their first speech (on any topic) as some sort of commentary on the moral intolerability of engaging in regular debate in the face of genocide. Trading the story across the lunch table, that debater cleaned up at elite tournaments. In retrospect, I can't say I ever recall actually seeing a round that was anything like that -- and I both witnessed and participated in many elite-level debate rounds. Stories are stories.
All of that said, I can't fully accuse Fishback of nutpicking. The "Marxist-Leninist-Maoist" judge that opens his story was a collegiate debate champ, and so can't be dismissed as a complete non-entity. For recent graduates who are looking back on their competition-days, it is very, very easy to miss "having the ball in your hands"; to think on the arguments you would have made now that you're (slightly) older and (arguably) wiser, and live out that saudade for being a competitor by turning the act of judging into "what would I have argued." It's easy, but it's not good, and it takes the event away from the people who are actually competing in it. There's no such thing, in my view, as a debate where only one side is allowed to show up, and judges who functionally make that demand are toxic to the enterprise.
At the same time, the problem in debate of bad judges is an eternal one. And I have sympathy for the NSDA here, because it's actually a really difficult problem to regulate. It's unfeasible for the NSDA at a national level to actually police the judging styles and capacities of hundreds if not thousands of judges at tournaments across the country (which is one reason why the norm has shifted to disclosure -- we can't control if your judge is good, but you can at least know what their paradigm is). And for obvious reasons, the NSDA does not want to open the door to ad hoc challenges of particular judging decisions on general claims of "unfairness" -- that way lies anarchy (particularly when you're dealing with debaters, who always can come up with reasons why their losses are unfair!). In reality, much like Supreme Court ethics rules, there's probably not much that the NSDA can do other than vaguely promote norms of fairness and hope for the best.
Indeed, in many ways the problem with debate judges is not so different than the problem with Article III judges. There's little that's more frustrating than the sense that the judge in front of you has rigid ideological commitments that will prevent them from fairly assessing your arguments no matter what you do. That frustration is multiplied by the fact that, if they do act in that abusive fashion, there's little in the way of recourse -- we can't get rid of bad, biased Article III judges and, practically speaking, we can't get rid of bad, biased debate judges. The same mechanisms that ensure an independent judiciary and facilitate the orderly administration of justice by not allowing every unpopular decision to be second-guessed also provide a near-impenetrable suit of armor for hacks and incompetents alike if they do manage to get through the door. That is, to reiterate, insanely frustrating. But there's no straightforward resolution to it.
The reality is that the political demographics of both the most common participants in debate (publicly-engaged 14-18 year olds) and the most common judges of those debates (publicly-engaged 18-24 year olds) means that debate will almost inevitably slant to the left. Again, that's not something that can easily be fixed short of manually changing people's political opinions. We hold our opinions because we're persuaded by them; so it's inevitable that the arguments we tend to find persuasive are more likely to be the one's resonant with our opinions. That tendency can be checked, but it probably can't be overcome entirely.
But to some extent, the focus on "liberal" versus "conservative" ideas in high school debate to my mind reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what debate is -- and overlooks one of its most valuable features.
It's natural for an outsider to think that high school debate, insofar as it touches on politically salient issues, naturally divides itself into contemporary liberal and conservative divides. If the topic is a resolution on, say, foreign aid, one participant will lay out roughly what you might hear on the subject from a Democratic Senator, the other, from a Republican House member. But, at least when I was competing, this was rarely what happened. Debate tackled issues from a multitude of different perspectives and angles that rarely, if ever, neatly tracked contemporary partisan divisions. Despite the seeming binary imposed by pro/con, affirmative/negative, the lived reality of debate transcended these narrow divisions.
And this is a good thing. The purpose of debate is not to give competitors a working understanding of and fluency in what arguments are currently circulating in the halls of Congress. Debaters are not there to parrot the arguments that one most commonly hears on CNN or Fox News. The purpose of debate is to give competitors the tools to think creatively about their own arguments, to try to make those arguments as strong as possible, and to assess and defend them against any range of potential responses. It is perhaps a sad commentary on politics that a focus on strong arguments means that the resulting product will typically have little bearing on the actual contemporary disputes over liberal versus conservative politics. But that's how it goes. Moreover, it is entirely possible to have a productive, valuable debate round where both competitors basically accept liberal, or conservative, or Marxist priors and then argue "what's the best way of doing X from within that framework?" That sort of debate also teaches people how to critically assess and defend positions, just as effectively as debate rounds that more expressly cut across classic ideological paradigms. It is far too narrow, and constrains the vision of young debaters, to try to limit them to thinking purely within the well-worn grooves of American party politics.
And that brings me, in conclusion, to some of Kristen's comments. Kristen admits that, in contrast to Fishback's presentation, it does not seem like (in her recent experience) conservative ideas have been locked out of high school debate. And even when it comes to the specific conservative bugaboo of the day -- DEI initiatives -- much of the content the NSDA is promoting is entirely reasonable and salutary. Kristen remembers judges criticizing her and other female competitors for their "shrill" or "squeaky" voices; I remember a major tournament official repeatedly and openly -- as in, when making public announcements of awards -- engaging in homophobic taunting of one of my friends (he would repeatedly mispronounce the name of the student -- who was a regular top-tier competitor and absolutely known to the organizer -- so one of the syllables in his name was spoken as "gay", when the syllable in question was pronounced "guy"). If those sorts of practices are being arrested, it's all for the better.
But Kristen is concerned about some of the things that are listed as potential examples of DEI-related debate topics (inside the NSDA website's section on inclusivity). To be clear, it seems evident that the NSDA is suggesting that tournaments include some of these topics as part of the tournament's overall package, not to exclusively draw from them. But within this subcategory, Kristen thinks that the questions possess a liberal slant -- a problem even if (as is naturally the case in a debate context) people will inevitably be encouraged to take both "pro" and "con" positions.
Reading these topics, I understand why they're thought to be coded as liberal. At the same time, for at least a good quotient of them, it makes me sad that they are coded as liberal. Consider the question "Why are there so few startups founders who identify as women in the United States?" On the one hand, I get why this question seems to be "liberal". On the other hand, why is this question coded as liberal? Can it really be the case that conservatives don't have thoughts on this matter -- or at least thoughts they're not embarassed to share? When did conservatives decide that the only thought a conservative is permitted to think on this sort of question is "don't ask it"?
The students who answer this sort of question are not, overwhelmingly, thinking in terms of "how do I slot this in to a liberal or conservative ideological frame." They're going to be thinking practically about what sorts of factors or conditions lead to disproportionately fewer women founding startups. The reason why this codes as liberal, though, is that the very act of thinking through a question like that with any degree of seriousness (i.e., not just smirking "it's because women are for making babies!") has been coded as something that only liberals do. That, to my mind, is tragic -- but that's not a DEI problem or a NSDA problem, that's a conservative problem. Conservatives absolutely should have thoughts on why there are relatively few women founding startups. They also should have thoughts on questions like "How can the federal government do more to promote Latino/a/x entrepreneurship?" and "How can the US government increase participation rates of gender minorities in STEM fields?" These are important social problems which all of us should be tackling. Perhaps those thoughts will be radically different than what liberals have to say. Perhaps they'll be surprisingly resonant (think about cross-ideological coalitions forming around YIMBY zoning reform, or relaxing occupational licensing requirements). But to the extent that even trying to work through "how can we increase the representation of underrepresented minorities" is viewed as an inherently liberal endeavor; well, I think that's a tragedy.
More broadly: the point, again, of high school debate is not to give teenagers the opportunity to parrot the shibboleths of Democratic or Republican talking heads, and so high school debate does not fail when it forces a student to develop thoughts on a question that Democratic or Republican talking heads don't have thoughts on. So ultimately, I think it's a mistake -- and not reflective of high school debate as I remember it -- to ask whether or not students are presenting "liberal" or "conservative" views on a given question. Overwhelmingly, that entire framework is a projection by adults; it is not the approach taken by the competitors, nor should it be. Institutionally-speaking, debate should be about prompting students to think about interesting questions. The answers we get rarely will fully map on to contemporary political factions -- and that's a very good thing.