Depending on your definition of the term, “policy debate” has been around in the US for roughly a hundred years.  For the first few decades of its existence, the resolution for each year was considerably more narrow in scope than we’re accustomed to nowadays.  Some examples from NDT’s archive of past topics include:

RESOLVED: That the United States should adopt the cabinet-parliamentary form of government. (1922 – 1923)

RESOLVED: That the Allied War debts should be canceled (1932 – 1933)

RESOLVED: That the United States should extend diplomatic recognition to the communist government of China. (1954 – 1955)

In essence, these topics either left the affirmative no room for interpreting the resolution, or they merely allowed the affirmative to pick some method of implementing the policy in question, rather than creating a unique “plan.”  In either case, the affirmative was expected to and did “debate the whole resolution,” as it were.  This changed in 1966 with the resolution “RESOLVED: That the United States should substantially reduce its foreign policy commitments.”  For the first time, affirmatives could pick among any number of policies, all substantially different from one another, while still supporting the resolution.  This begs the question: how feasible is it for an affirmative team to “debate the whole resolution,” as they once did, with the broader resolutions you and I are accustomed to?  This article aims to explore the viability of so-called “whole rez” cases.

There are several ways an affirmative can take the whole rez approach.  For the sake of brevity, I’ll limit this article to the one which I think is strongest without being unfair.  Most resolutions contain some phrase to the effect of “reform its policy regarding X.”  A traditional affirmative case, either implicitly or explicitly, defines “policy regarding X” as the actor’s collection of laws that pertain to X.  By reforming one of those laws, aff has technically reformed policy since the aforementioned set of laws is now different.  On the other hand, a whole rez case defines “policy” as something along the lines of “the actor’s general approach to X.”  Take for example the resolution “The USFG should substantially reform its policy regarding foreign military intervention.”  A whole rez aff might posit that the United States’ policy regarding foreign military intervention is one of acting as a “global police force.”  They then would proceed to argue that acting as a global police force is bad, thus necessitating a reform of our policy (that is, our general approach) regarding foreign military intervention.

The Good

The whole rez approach has several unique strengths.  First, it necessarily prevents the debate from going off into the weeds about highly specific details of the aff plan (given that there is no such plan), instead forcing all on-case arguments to be substantive in nature.  This tends to help aff rather than neg since, as a general rule, affs are more prepared for substantive arguments against their case and less prepared for arguments about obscure minutiae which, though obscure, many times can win the round for neg.  Second, whole rez cases take most killshot arguments off of the table.  A whole rez debate is necessarily and strictly pro/con in nature, meaning that even in the worst-case scenario, aff always has at least some chance of outweighing neg’s arguments.  Whole rez removes arguments like solvency takeouts and topicality (“topicality” in the traditional sense of the word) from neg’s arsenal; in a traditional debate, aff has no such reciprocal arguments (IE, one-off winners), meaning that, all else equal, reverting to pro/con debate helps aff.

The Bad

Three distinct problems arise with the whole rez approach.  First, given their unconventional nature, whole rez debates are uniquely susceptible to devolving into theory debates.  This is not a problem per se, but judges will generally err in favor of convention in cases where one team deviates from well-established norms.  Second, as mentioned before, whole rez cases depend on aff’s ability to accurately characterize the actor’s approach to a certain policy area in general terms, which oftentimes is difficult to do.  Take for example NCFCA’s current resolution: “The United States Federal Government should significantly reform its import and/or export policy within the bounds of international trade.”  There exist compelling arguments both for and against a number of descriptions of the USFG’s approach to this policy area.  One might argue that the US generally pursues a policy of trade liberalization, pointing to the fact that we trade more than any other country.  One might also argue the opposite, highlighting that the US has instituted large numbers of export/import controls, tariffs, embargos, and other protectionist trade barriers .  As long as there exists debate on what the actor in a given resolution “generally does” with respect to a given policy area, neg can beat a whole rez aff by simply challenging aff’s description of the actor’s policy.  Third, it is difficult to make an absolute distinction between the two definitions of “policy” mentioned earlier.  That is, aff cannot argue for a change in the actor’s general approach to something without also (at least implicitly) arguing for a change in specific laws, even if they don’t name those laws.  While not impossible, a whole rez aff must be able to prevent neg from successfully establishing the connection between general and specific reforms, which enables “traditional neg arguments.”  Neg, if successful in doing this, creates significant problems for the aff since they now have more ground to work with than aff does.


Ben Brown is the blog manager for Ethos Debate LLC. He competed in Team Policy debate throughout high school and is currently a student at Hillsdale College studying economics and applied mathematics. When not debating, Ben can be found wishing he was debating, working out, or hanging out with friends and family.

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