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What must an affirmative team do to win a policy debate round?

The affirmative should win if they convince the judge that the audience and the debaters are better off if the judge votes affirmative. Conversely, the negative should win if they convince the judge that the audience and the debaters are better off if the judge votes negative.

Before explaining this answer, let’s step back. What kinds of considerations should inform our choice of burdens?

How do we reason about debate theory?

Debate is the only sport that we define the rules of as we play. Soccer dictates that if you score more goals than the other team, you win. Debate isn’t like that. In debate, the teams themselves may argue that the judge should vote on particular issues–proverbially moving the goalposts as the game is played.

But debate is still a sport! So many debaters (and coaches!) are caught in the trap of “aff/neg must do X because logic requires it.” In sports, logic doesn’t require anything! Why is an NBA-regulation basketball hoop 10 feet off the ground? That’s just the way we’ve always done it! Logic doesn’t require or demand it be 10 feet and not 9.5 feet.

This doesn’t mean sports’ rules are arbitrary. There are all sorts of values at play: fairness, fun, audience engagement, and so on. Did you know figure skaters are prohibited from doing backflips? Not because backflips aren’t awesome, but because doing backflips with blades attached to your feet is dangerous.

In summary: we get to decide the height of the basketball goal in each debate round. And, just like there is no pre-existing golden book of figure skating rules, the choice of what burdens we should apply to the teams is a policy choice, not a question of fact.

I hope you see how profound this is. There is no one true debate theory, waiting to be found. Rather, we should choose rules that benefit the audience and the debaters, just like we choose rules that benefit the figure skating audience while trying to minimize the danger to the skaters.

Let’s get more detailed

The most common answer to the question “what is the job of the affirmative?” is probably going to be “to prove the resolution true.” I’ll refer to this as “rezcentrism.” 

I reject this for many reasons, but I’ll talk about two here.

First, no one actually plays by this rule. 

Take kritiks as an example. If a neg uses racist or sexist terminology, I’d like to think that most of us would vote aff even if the aff fails to prove the resolution true. We would vote aff to penalize the neg for their use of the racist or sexist terminology. (Ask your coach about kritikal affs for another example of this disregard for the resolution.)

Similarly, no one actually believes that the resolution is false. No one thinks that the EU’s immigration policy is perfect, or that there aren’t some instances of military commitments somewhere that should be cut. Let’s align our debate theory with the truth that the debate is about the affirmative’s specific plan.

Second, topical counterplans benefit everyone.

If the job of the affirmative is to prove the resolution true, then it would seem that the negative could not win by bringing a topical counterplan.

But real policymaking and decisionmaking involves the comparison of alternatives. If you’re in sales, proving that “you should buy something” may be easy. The trick is convincing the person that they should buy your specific product. If you’re a legislator trying to get your bill passed, you don’t want your colleagues scrapping your bill and watering it down with some alternative plan.

In this light, the judge does a disservice to both teams if she votes aff when neg offers a clearly-superior-but-topical counterplan. It deprives both teams (and the audience!) of that real-world, plan-versus-plan debate.

The NBA adopted the shot clock in 1954, which requires teams to shoot the ball within 24 seconds of taking possession, or else give the ball to the other team. Why? Because once a team got the lead, they could just stand on the court, holding the ball, with no way for the other team to force them to give it up. Basketball was boring.

Topical counterplans are a kind of shot clock. They make debates more interesting and place a more rigorous standard on the affirmative. And those are perfectly acceptable reasons to adopt a particular kind of debate theory. (To be clear, there are rezcentrist theories under which topical counterplans are allowed–parametrics, for example–but I don’t discuss them here out of a concern that this is already too long.)

Note my method of reasoning here. I’m not creating a self-sustaining theory which happens to create better debates. I’m beginning with the principle that any debate theory must encourage better debates. If it doesn’t, we should reject it.

Some examples

As a quick reminder, I’m arguing that the judge should vote according to what leaves the audience and the debaters better off. Let’s take three scenarios to see how this plays out.

Example 1:

  • Status: Aff loses all advantages and neg wins a disadvantage, with no other arguments on the table.
  • Decision: neg wins, because debate is worse off if the judge irrationally chooses the option that has no advantages and only disadvantages.

Example 2:

  • Status: Judge believes that aff has a 20% chance of solving substantial harms, neg has no other arguments.
  • Decision: aff wins, because debate is debate is worse off if the judge irrationally chooses the option that has no disadvantages and the possibility of some substantial benefit.

Example 3:

  • Status: Aff wins that their plan will save $200. Neg wins a competitive topical counterplan which saves 200 lives and argues that 200 humans > $200.
  • Decision: neg wins: we do debaters a disservice if we allow them to advocate plans which are incompatible with better plans. In most “real” contexts, the same debate would result in the dismissal or amendment of the aff plan. 


When we use phrases like “the aff plan is topical”, “the affirmative must do X” we obscure the truth of the matter: there is no “is” or “must,” only what should or ought be.

I think we should prioritize the quality of the debate round over appeals to logical consistency. And because of that, I am a plancentrist rather than a rezcentrist.

There’s some beauty to this paradigm. It recognizes debate for what it is: a game we get to play to sharpen our skills and educate ourselves about the important things of the world. Let’s choose the rules accordingly.

This post was drafted in response to Danielle Miller’s podcast dialogue on affirmative burdens.

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