The new topic options have been presented for STOA team policy debate and there is incredible potential for an extremely engaging and competitive year of debate across all three topics. Just like last year, I’ll be going over the pros and cons of each option and then offering my opinion on which I believe is the best resolution. I’ll be rating each category in two topics. First will be educational and engagement potential. Here I’ll basically be judging each topic on their ability to prevent the year from going stale, and value to students as a learning opportunity. Secondly, each topic will be graded on its ability to facilitate competitive debate rounds, basically which topic will generate the greatest quantity of fair, even debates. I’ll look at balance, breadth of aff and neg arguments, and the available research on the topic. Each category will be rated on a scale of 1-3, with 1 being the best topic for that category and 3 being the worst.
1) Resolved: The United States Federal Government should considerably decrease its military commitments
The United States has a long and storied history of military commitments all around the world. As one of, if not the leading, super powers in the world, American troop placement can dictate foreign policy for a majority of the rest of the globe. As such, there is an incredible amount to learn in terms of sheer breadth of information. Military operations take into account regional elements, so students will not just be learning about US policy, but the cultures and political struggles of regions around the world where there is a US military presence. That being said, as a debate topic, this resolution could result in a lack of depth of knowledge. Rather than intricately understanding the spiderweb of factors that go into even the most simple decisions regarding America’s armed forces, the nature of competitive debate encourages finding new cases as quickly as possible and simply understanding them at one level beyond the basics. Additionally, as far as common knowledge goes, most policy debaters probably have some familiarity with the military already. The armed forces are always a topic of discussion in the news and press, so if you follow the news, you’re already somewhat informed on these topics. That being said, even if a student is already familiar with America’s policies concerning war, the complexities of combat mean there will always be more to learn on this topic. The question is then whether or not the competitive nature of debate will actually encourage students to flesh out those complex elements.
There are two key phrases in this topic that will be the focus of topicality debates and AFF case discovery research. The first being “considerably” and the second “military commitments.” Examining what it means to “considerably decrease” rather than “substantially” or “significantly” will most likely broaden the amount of topics. It allows a direct window into a qualitatively significant case. Rather than having to justify the importance of an AFF case by quantifiable metrics, the AFF team can simply say their policy is worthy of consideration, and thus considerable and thus topical. What that means in the long run, is more potential AFF cases with smaller research pools for the NEG to draw counter arguments from. Next looking at the term “military commitments.” Luckily, there are some objective ways that the US defines what they consider to be a military commitment, which means there shouldn’t be as much confusion as the season progresses debating whether or not a particular case is a “military commitment.” The final point of note concerning the competitiveness of the resolution is the fact the resolution is one-directional. Teams may only decrease military commitments. This is extremely good for a healthy, competitive season of debate. It gives both AFF and NEG a higher degree of consistency heading into rounds. You know on AFF rounds you will be arguing for a decrease in military commitments in some form or fashion and on NEG rounds you will be arguing that a decrease is bad in some form or another. With fewer unknowns heading into the round, the debate becomes much more about the performance of the teams in the debate and their ability to use a more predictable research pool to their advantage.
2) Resolved: The United States Federal Government should substantially reform one or more of the laws administered by the department of labor
There is an immense practical element to this topic. Labor stands implicate the US economy substantially on both micro and macro levels, meaning 1) you will learn important information that you will need to know as a current or future employee/employer, 2) your judge will more heavily relate to your argumentation as they probably would be impacted by it directly. The breadth of cases here is also pretty diverse. Cases could have to do with federal hiring policy and security background checks, racial hiring quotas and policies, and the ever-present discussion of unionization. While the topic may not be as stunning as one dealing with nuclear weapons, criminal punishment, or international relations, the personal, practical element easily compensates and will probably be far more interesting than you could initially guess. Additionally, there is ample fresh evidence about unemployment statistics due to the COVID pandemic of 2020. The entire world is reexamining what it even means to be a working community, let alone how to regulate and manage that working community. America will be fully engaged in a time of rebuilding during the 2020-2021 season, meaning students will be learning about policies as they happen. On the contrary however, after living through the time of pandemic, students and judges alike may simply be exhausted by discussion of the virus and would like to discuss something new in debate rounds. Of the three proposed resolutions, this one certainly has the most potential of being focused around the effects of the coronavirus.
This topic will have a constantly updated pool of research. Local, state, and federal labor policy makers will be in the thick of pacing new legislation to restart the economy after social distancing hopefully comes to a close. Debaters will have no shortage then of fresh evidence to discover during this topic. And while there will be plenty of research, and thus new affirmative cases to use in rounds, there really isn’t a risk of this topic being a battleground of brand new cases at every tournament. The topic is worded quite well to only focus on the laws administered by the Dept. of Labor, not the actual formation of the agency. Additionally, while the department certainly has a plethora of different regulations in their books, they are still solely focused around a simple idea: labor. This gives students the freedom to dive deep into research without fear that their knowledge won’t actually give them a competitive advantage in round. The complexity of the topic, however, means that could be an uptick in rounds where the main point comes down to simply trying to figure out what exactly the AFF case is doing, rather than whether or not the AFF case is a good idea. Debaters will have to master the ability to simplify complex policies with multiple components to succeed on this topic.
3) Resolved: That a comprehensive program of penal reform should be adopted throughout the United States
A lot of policy debaters plan on studying law, politics, and policy after high school. Understanding penal reform before college or work would be immensely beneficial for those students. But even for judges or students with no career interests in the field of criminal justice, understanding the way crime and punishment impacts all levels of society is always of value. Students will have the opportunity to assess the most effective and moral methods to regulate crime, rehabilitate prisoners, and keep communities safe. This topic also carries with it a heightened focus on the philosophical. Is retribution or rehabilitation more important? Is it moral to let 100 rehabilitated prisoners secure an early release with the chance one of them may commit a violent crime? Or should they all stay incarcerated to prevent that criminal act? Aside from educating students on whether or not a policy is effective or practical, students will wrestle with the bigger picture question of whether or not the goals of their policy are even worth pursuing in the first place. Penal reform has a direct human impact, so even if there may end up being a more limited pool of affirmative cases on this topic, there will always be an engaging portion of the debate. Regardless of what AFF case a team chooses, they are directly altering the livelihoods of criminal, potential future criminals, victims, and the other many people involved in criminal activities in America.
Creativity will be critical for success on this topic. Of the three proposed topics, the phrasing “comprehensive program of penal reform” may be the most limiting resolution as far as AFF case discovery goes. This doesn’t mean there is a lack of research on the topic. In fact, there is no shortage of it. However, in order to find plan advocates for specific comprehensive programs, students will have to do more digging to find proposals beyond the major ones being actively debated in Congress. Finding programs proposed by ex-felons, professors, law enforcement officials, and others will be a major area of opportunity for affirmative researchers. Students will gain a competitive advantage by finding creative solutions to solve complex problems. NEG will always have a pretty stable collection of arguments to use from round to round. Negative teams can say that the AFF case will let violent criminals out of prison too early, or the aff case won’t actually rehabilitate offenders, or the aff case will keep good people locked up for too long, etc. In the face of those relatively simple, yet compelling arguments, teams will be rewarded for spending those extra hours brainstorming ways to frame their cases to respond to those disadvantages. Of the three topics, this one would be the only one that could potentially be NEG sided, simply because coming up with a good solution to America’s criminal justice system is very difficult, and the resolution only lets students reform the penal programs. The combination of philosophy and policy for this topic means that the best teams will be those that are well versed in more than just one area of research and discuss a variety of different viewpoints and opinions with a high degree of eloquence.
Recommended topic: All three topics are quite good. There’s really no way to have a mediocre season with these resolutions on the table. The scores actually all ended up being tied with a total of 4 for each topic. As such, much of what will seem to be a good topic will come down to personal preference. My personal recommendation would be for option B, Labor. It certainly may not be the most flashy from a content perspective on the outset. But of the three resolutions, this topic contains the most information debaters need to learn about that they wouldn’t otherwise learn by simply being informed students. The recency of quarantine will be fresh on the entire community’s mind and finding the most advantageous methods of getting everyone back on their feet will the question on the top of everyone’s mind. Giving students the opportunity to engage in those issues in debate rounds is a great opportunity. AFF and NEG teams alike will be rewarded for their ability to explain complex issues in simple ways. There will always be fresh research for students to draw from and creative strategies to execute in round. With these topics, you can’t really go wrong with whichever you choose to vote for. However, debating America’s labor policy is the hot button issue in our country right now, and students should not be left out of that discussion.
Eric Meinerding holds his B.S. in Law and Policy from Liberty University. Eric has competed on Liberty’s moot court and mock trial teams, where he qualified to nationals in moot court during his two years of competition in addition to winning the 2019 Fitchburg Regional Tournament. Additionally, he is the chair of the undergraduate law review. He also competed in team policy debate during his first few years of college, and in addition to his experience in high school, has spent a decade coaching and participating in competitive forensics. Eric is aspiring to be involved in criminal defense work after graduating law school. But before then, he plans on spending the next chapter of his life in ministry, where he’ll be a campus staff member at Liberty with Campus Outreach.