The (Unnoticed?) Standardization of High School Policy Debate Resolutions

One thing I like to do when researching a new debate topic is to review the list of old resolutions to see if and when similar issues were debated before. This can often provide useful ideas for arguments to explore, but it also offers an interesting historical perspective on the evolution of debate topics over time.

When investigating previous analogues to this year’s water resources topic — the 2003-2004 ocean policy topic, the 1985-1986 water quality topic, and the 1970-1971 pollution topic are the closest — it struck me how standardized topics have recently become. Until relatively recently, topics tended to vary in word choice and format from year to year. Even after the U.S. federal government became the standard agent of action in the 1960s, there was still significant year-to-year variation in mechanisms/verbs. These, too, started to standardize in the 1990s and 2000s, but since 2010 there has been yet another noticeable increase in topic standardization.

Consider, for example, that fourteen resolutions have used the phrase “substantially increase.” Twelve of those resolutions have been debated since 2000, including seven since 2010.

More specifically, nine resolutions have used the phrase “substantially increase its.” All but one were debated since 2007, including seven since 2010.

Since 2010, in fact, ten of the twelve resolutions have used the phrase “substantially [verb] its”: “substantially increase its” (seven), “substantially reduce its” (twice), and “substantially curtail its” (once). One of the two exceptions used similar language; in 2019-2020, the topic used the phrase “substantially reduce Direct Commercial Sales and/or Foreign Military Sales,” essentially synonymous with “substantially reduce its DCS and/or FMS.”

Indeed, all twelve resolutions since 2010 begin with “Resolved: The United States federal government should,” and all but one continue with “substantially [verb] its” (I’m including the arms sales topic; see above). Here is the list of resolutions with these common phrases in bold:

2010-2011 — Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially reduce its military and/or police presence in one or more of the following: South Korea, Japan, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq, Turkey.
2011-2012 — Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its exploration and/or development of space beyond the Earth’s mesosphere.
2012-2013 — Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its transportation infrastructure investment in the United States.
2013-2014 — Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its economic engagement toward Cuba, Mexico or Venezuela.
2014-2015 — Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its non-military exploration and/or development of the Earth’s oceans.
2015-2016 — Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially curtail its domestic surveillance.
2016-2017 — Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its economic and/or diplomatic engagement with the People’s Republic of China.
2017-2018 — Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its funding and/or regulation of elementary and/or secondary education in the United States.
2018-2019 — Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially reduce its restrictions on legal immigration to the United States.
2019-2020 — Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially reduce Direct Commercial Sales and/or Foreign Military Sales of arms from the United States.
2020-2021 — Resolved: The United States federal government should enact substantial criminal justice reform in the United States in one or more of the following: forensic science, policing, sentencing.
2021-2022 — Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its protection of water resources in the United States.

The only outlier in these topics is the CJR topic. It still begins with “Resolved: The United States federal government should,” but it uses a different mechanism/verb: “enact substantial criminal justice reform.” By deviating from the directional language of the other resolutions (increase, reduce, curtail), this invited a topicality controversy about bidirectionality.

Regardless of one’s position on the value of this wording, it was definitely different; it was only the second topic to use the term “reform” (1976-1977) and only the third to use the verb “enact” (1931-1932 and 1935-1936). By using this “non-standard” language, the resolution posed new topicality questions and new controversies about agent counterplan competition.

With the water resources topic, the standardized wording has returned: the resolution again begins with “Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its.” The mechanism/verb “protection” is relatively uncommon — it was previously used only in 2000-2001 (“significantly increase protection of privacy”) and 2002-2003 (“substantially increasing protection of marine natural resources”) — but it has been “plugged in” to the standard wording.

Why has the topic become so standardized? Maybe a consensus has developed that this is the best way to word resolutions. Or maybe those who are crafting and voting on resolutions are being cautious, not wanting to choose an “unknown” when the standardized wording is “good enough.” Or maybe it is simply inertia, and no one has actually made the decision to standardize this wording; it just happened.

Based on the gripes I hear from students, judges, and coaches about the topic — about every topic — it is hard to believe that we have achieved a “perfect” way to standardize each resolution’s wording. And with so much recent standardization, how would we really know? Without at least occasionally experimenting with the topic’s wording, how can we be satisfied that our standardized format is optimal?

In reviewing the list of old topics, it is evident that the popularity of particular mechanisms and formats ebbs and flows over time. The era of “comprehensive program/policy” in the late-1970s and 1980s gave way to the era of “establish a program/policy” in the 1990s and 2000s, which in turn gave way to the current era of “substantially increase/reduce its.” But even in those eras, there was more significant variation in resolutional wording from year to year.

Even the current ubiquity of “substantial/substantially” is hard to explain. A variation of “substantial” has been used in 27 resolutions: twice in the 1950s, but then not until 1994-1995. Since 1994, it has been used in 25 of 28 resolutions; the only exceptions (1999-2000, 2000-2001, and 2001-2002) used the term “significantly,” one that had previously been used in eight resolutions.

But despite its ubiquity, “substantial[ly]” seems very unpopular. Since as early as 1998, debaters have been haranguing the term; in that year’s Debater’s Research Guide, Eric Pruett noted that “substantially appears constantly in debate topics in spite of its almost universal criticism as a ‘devil word’, a word with no meaning, a word that cannot be defined.”

So why do resolutions continue to use that term? Have we collectively decided that There Is No Alternative? Are we afraid that experimenting with alternative wordings will pose unnecessary risks to the quality of our debates? Or have we just gotten used to it, and so we haven’t really decided at all?

I don’t know the answer to those questions, or to the larger questions about why high school policy debate topics have become so standardized in the last decade. But I think these questions are worth discussing, and my impression is that most people haven’t noticed how standardized our topics have become.

What do you think? Share your perspective in the comments.