Imagine if legislation were made by policy debaters. I recognize that some readers may be imagining a dystopian world where almost nothing gets done due to a paranoid fear of starting a nuclear war, and even I realize that a congress composed of policy debaters could be rather dysfunctional (perhaps not unlike our current Congress). However, I do often think that it would be great to have more policy debater voices in politics/legislation. It’s just that I’m nagged by the follow-up question: “how?” This article is meant to be one of many possible answers to that question. The article is about you. (Sort of.)
In my few years of policy debate, I have come across only a handful of policy proposals that I seriously support, including 1) reforming the US antidumping system to actually evaluate costs and benefits of tariffs/duties, and 2) significantly cutting funding for the federal air marshals. There are also other policies that I have heard other people describe which I have not personally researched, but which also sound pretty compelling, such as passing the Food for Peace Modernization Act and reducing funding to crop insurance programs such as the Harvest Price Option. Indeed, it seems that every year of policy debate brings forward a lot of not-so-great policy proposals but also a small few which are actually really good cases. The problem I lament at the end of every season? Policy doesn’t change in the real world (of course). After nationals, the policies seem to just fade away. I’ve long dreamed of the year when a few groups of debaters get together and form a campaign to advocate for a policy proposal that seems to be a clearly good policy. Thus, this article attempts to introduce the why and how you can make a difference in the real world.
There are at least five major benefits to pitching debate policies in the real world. But it’s important to understand that, especially in the first few ventures, it will be just as much for the journey (e.g. experience) as for the advertised destination (i.e. actual policy change). In no particular order:
- Because it’s good for society. Yes, the chances are low that you will make a difference, but the benefits for society could be so large that it may be worth the effort—even more so than voting.
- Consistency/Credibility. Like voting, it’s kind of hypocritical if you criticize the government for what you perceive as bad policies, yet choose not to do anything about the problem.
- Great experience, especially for those who are looking to work in politics, policy, or related fields.
- Form new connections. If you network with other people in clubs around the country, you may meet some like-minded people that you enjoy interacting with…or, you might at least meet someone from another club that writes good briefs.
- Credentials and reputation. Even just an effort to do this can look great on your resume/college application, depending on how much work you put in and what kind of challenges you try to overcome, etc. Who knows: it may even get you noticed by a congressional office or related employer…
For this section, I want to be clear that there are many ways one could approach this; what I write is just the introductory tip of the grassroots iceberg. In fact, this section isn’t intended to be a detailed guide to instigating policy change; it’s just meant to convince people that the idea isn’t completely impractical.
The first stage is organization.
This can involve you identifying a network of interested and like-minded people, whether they are in your club, your region, your league, or wherever. If you are interested, just mention it to people you know who you think might also be interested. If you have enough people, you can create a GroupMe (or a Slack chat, if you are feeling extra professional). Share your goals with others, and listen to their goals, so as to ultimately create a group with a common goal. However, I would recommend waiting until the next stage to determine which policy/case you actually want to push for. This means your initial goal should probably be pretty broad, such as “increase public support/awareness for policy issues.”
The second stage is planning.
This involves refining goals (i.e. evaluating policies/cases), as well as brainstorming and evaluating the methods for achieving your goals. If you’re going to advocate cases, you’ll want to select policies that are almost inarguably good and, if possible, politically feasible. For example, the case for significantly cutting funding for the federal air marshals is just so incredibly strong; I spent tens of hours trying to write a sourcebook brief to justify their existence, but it became the only case I’ve ever been flatly unable to write a brief on. In contrast, I felt somewhat strongly for my case to require body camera usage for police, but I could easily write a brief against it, so I wouldn’t recommend that. To decide on which policies you want to advocate, I would recommend trying Kialo. With regards to methods and tactics, I’m no political organizer, but I know there are many options. Do your homework and choose your path.
Lastly, there is the action stage.
This stage is about the implementation of your plans to achieve your goals. You’ve already recruited a team, identified your goals, and evaluated your options. Now, the rubber meets the road. You can circulate petitions; submit op-eds to local newspapers (especially college students and college newspapers); you can contact think tanks and provide research to them; you can reach out to representatives via calls, letters, in-person meetings, briefs/primers; etc.
It’s important to recognize that you are probably going to run into challenges, but this can still be an opportunity: when I was applying to colleges, I was frequently told that they want to hear about determination, critical thinking, and problem solving. Aside from those attributes, it’s also important to remember to coordinate well in this stage, so as to avoid wasteful duplication or looking unprofessional (e.g. accidentally sending two letters to the same newspaper). I could go on, but some of the major points to remember here are to follow through, problem solve, and coordinate.
I don’t (always) dream of a world where policy debaters run Congress, but I do want to see the thousands of hours that policy debaters collectively spend every year to go towards actual change. Even if people don’t reach the ultimate destination, there are so many benefits for trying that I really think that it would be worth the effort for numerous people (just think of the story you could tell on your college application essay). The effort won’t be very easy, especially if there isn’t a familiar history of this kind of grassroots movement in the league, but it has to start with someone. Why not you?