What is Lincoln Douglas Debate?

What is Debate?

A debate is a structured argument that includes statements supported by facts and logic, includes a rebuttal, and… is probably one of the most misused words in the media today.

We are going to be using debate in the strictest definition:  an organized discussion between two people or teams to argue a resolution.

You’ll hear the word debate used in many ways.

  • Debating with your parents over privileges
  • Presidential debates
  • Congressional debates
  • News media debates with experts.

I’ve been known to twitch just a little when I hear these, especially presidential debates and news media debates.  I don’t know what those are except sound bite generators – they’re certainly not debates.

Because we have abused the word debate in our culture, we’re going to define it:  a series of arguments about a resolution between two opposing sides.

So What’s an Argument?

An argument can be a (potentially loud) discussion over a topic.  But in our class, an argument is also called a contention:  it is a statement that the speaker puts forward to support their side of a debate.  Usually, a debater will put forth several contentions in a debate.  The number of contentions is limited to the amount of time a debate has to present the evidence supporting the contentions.

How does this differ from your discussion about whether or not your curfew should be set at 10 p.m. or 11 p.m.?

It doesn’t have to.  You can argue for a later curfew using logic and reason with your facts – and you may very well win.  (Warnings to parents – you better get ready for this from your teen.)  But usually, an argument is an emotion-laden discussion where reason and facts aren’t primary points in the discussion.  The back-and-forth nature of most arguments tends to preclude using reason and logic and the participants get caught up in the emotional drama.

But a full debate argument will include cross-examinations and questions.  Just not like you’ve probably experienced.  Even in a courtroom, where most debate-type discussions are held, we can lose the power of the organized debate structure and have it become a discussion where facts are limited by the rules of law.

Lincoln Douglas Debate

Before the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas were running for an Illinois state Senate seat.  They proceded to debate the issue of slavery.  These debates became the format for morality debate events of the National Speech and Debate Association.  Lincoln Douglas debates (LD) are held at the high school level across the country.   Several different debating leagues also have LD debates.  The timing formats are generally the same (although prep time may vary) but the styles of debate leagues can be radically different.

The format is one on one debate with a deciding judge or panel.

The LD format allows both sides an equal amount of time, but it is divided differently for each side.

Affirmative Constructive:  6 minutes
Negative Cross Examination:  3 minutes
Negative Constructive/Attack on Affirmative: 7 minutes
Affirmative Cross Examination:  3 minutes
Affirmative Rebuttal:  4 minutes
Negative Rebuttal/Conclusion (KVI): 6 minutes
Affirmative Conclusion (KVI):  3 minutes.

Both sides have 13 minutes of speaking time, 3 minutes of cross-examination, and an optional prep time that may be taken upon demand between sections.

Each section of the debate has a specific purpose, but can be used to build a case against your opponent or to lay out your own arguments.

A constructive argument is where the debater lays out the contentions of their arguments.  An attack is where a debater lays out the reasons why the opposition’s arguments are wrong or not substantial.  A rebuttal is where the debater defends attacks on their case. Cross-examination (or cross-X or CX) is where the debaters answer questions from the other debater to clarify points, to show weaknesses in the debater’s ability to support their contentions, or to start laying out a foundation for the opposition’s case.  Conclusions are the summation of the arguments and may include KVPs.

KVI stands for Key Voting Issues – the reasons the judge should vote in a particular way, relating primarily to

  • the Value/Value Criterion clash
  • the contentions/rebuttals
  • failures of one debater to fulfill the obligations of the debate (answering attacks, fair debating techniques.)

How Is an LD Debate Constructive Argument Structured?

Well into the 19th Century, most of the world recognized slavery.  Only the British Empire had abolished slavery when Lincoln and Douglas held their debates.  While we see it now as a grave personal injustice against an individual’s right of freedom, this has been an evolved position.  Even in early Christianity, the nature of slavery was accepted.

The values of society changed.


In LD debate, because we are arguing morality, we have to define first what we value as preeminent in the debate.  What’s the most important value that we need to support?  We see several values consistently used in LD:

  • justice
  • equality
  • autonomy
  • liberty
  • individual rights
  • human rights
  • human dignity
  • societal welfare
  • civil rights
  • government legitimacy.

Each of these values is based primarily in a Western Civilization philosophy, primarily because of the Judeo-Christian religions.  However, there are many other philosophies and morality structures that may not prize these things as highly as we do.

  1. Societies that have a rigid caste system (such as India’s former system) or a significant class system may not value individual rights or freedoms.
  2. Countries with totalitarian or theocratic regimes will not support individual rights or human dignity above the power of the government.
  3. Failed state governments (such as Somalia or Sudan) cannot support or protect their citizens, leading to wide-spread crime, graft, and corruption.  Justice and societial welfare are ignored.
  4. Communist and socialist nations often pay lip-service to human rights but hold the government’s position higher to the point that individual rights are extinguished.

This paradox continues to be in play in every society.   We live in the tension between the two.

Most LD debates focus on individual rights vs. the government’s responsibility.  Determining the value (V) you want to support is the first step in writing a case.  What do you think of when you look at a resolution?  When you do topic analysis, you’ll be considering the debate resolution from multiple perspectives and both sides: affirmative (AFF) and negative (NEG.)

If values are so important in debate, then how do we prove which value is more important?

Value Criterion

Once a value is set, we need to have a method for the judge to determine that the value is achieved.  This is called the Value Criterion (VC or V/C).

The VC is a standard or method to achieve the value.  There needs to be a direct link from the Value to the Value Criterion.

Let’s say the chosen value is Human Dignity (HD).  How do we achieve it?  We may want to Minimize Suffering by providing governmental services.  Or we may want to Reduce Governmental Taxation so that a person can keep more of their income.  Both have specific links to Human Dignity.

If you can’t express the link between the V and the VC, you’re in trouble.

This system of value and value criterion is called the framework.  Everything else should support the framework in some way.


All debates need to have a clear set of definitions for every word that may be in dispute.  This keeps the debate on track and prevents shifting the debate away from the original intent.  Because many words can have multiple meanings based on context or on the source, laying out definitions from reliable sources is a part of any constructive argument.

You must use valid definitions.  You can’t make one up.  Cite the source as well.  If your opponent uses a definition you disagree with, you can present your own definition.  You really don’t want to argue which source is better but you can explain why your definition should be preferred.  (This rarely happens in debate, but be prepared.)  Some terms have multiple philosophical definitions:  Justice, in particular, has many definitions based on which philosopher you’re citing.  John Rawls and Socrates don’t agree.  Be specific.  Also be sure to define your VC:  is minimizing the same as removing all?  You make that claim – you better be prepared to back it up.


With only 6 minutes in the Affirmative Constructive (AC) and 7 minutes in the Negative  Constructive (NC), there is not a lot of spare time.  Often NEG will concede the definitions – why repeat what AFF just said?

Then begin the contentions.  Contentions are reasons why your value and value criterion are the most important.  Usually, AFF will have 3.  NEG sometimes has 3, but since the debater has to divide the 7-minute speaking time into laying out the contentions and start the attack on the AFF, the case often is shorter.

A contention starts with a title or tag that links it to the VC.

If the V is Human Dignity, and the VC is Minimizing Suffering, the contentions could be

  1. Reducing worker oppression:  by reducing workers’ rights to fair pay or limiting working hours, this minimizes the suffering of the workers and upholds their human dignity.
  2. Increasing minimum wages:  by increasing wages, a worker is able to afford a better lifestyle and minimizes their suffering.  This upholds their human dignity.
  3. Reducing top management pay:  by limiting the amount of compensation given to top-level offices, this frees up more money to pay the workers.  This minimizes their suffering and upholds their human dignity.

Each contention can be numbered for easier referral later.  We call them C1, C2, etc.

It is the nature of LD that we don’t have to argue reality.  Is reducing top management pay really going to put more money in worker’s pockets?  It doesn’t matter if it does or not.  You can argue that it can happen.  You don’t have to give examples of it happening.

The AC has 6 minutes to lay out the reasons for the resolution.

The NC has 7 minutes to lay out the reasons against the resolution AND to attack the AFF’s case.  This is why the NEG generally has a shorter case – the time also has to be spent attacking the AFF case.  Why?  Because failure to attack can be construed as conceding that their argument has merit and you have no reasons to argue against it.  This is a fatal error in Debate.  You have to attack each part of the opponent’s case.

Sometime NEG gets lucky and their case answer’s AFF’s contentions.  That’s a sweet spot to be in.  Doesn’t always happen, but enjoy it when it does.

If NEG has a V of Autonomy and a VC of preserving liberty, then their answers to the above contentions might be

  1. Employers Determine Fair Pay for Work:  Employers have the right to determine what they want or are willing/able to pay a worker.  Both the employer and the worker have the liberty to accept the offer or refuse, thus upholding autonomy.
  2. Government Overstep:  Government interference in economic issues harms the employers by mandating minimum wage which may force a business to close.  This overstep puts the government into private industry where it has no mandated position based on the US Constitution.  This reduces liberty and ultimately, the autonomy of the employers.

Then NEG must attack AFF’s case.

AC1.  Workers have the right to walk away from jobs where they are overworked or underpaid.  No one is compelled to work at a job – that’s their right as citizens and it recognizes the worker’s autonomy, (Notice how the attack turned the to the V of the NEG case.)

AC2. Answered by NEG’s C2.  Government is overstepping its bounds by inserting itself into the private sector.  This harms liberty and therefore autonomy.

AC3.  The employers have a right to pay the wages to all employees that the market will bear.  If they want to pay a high wage to a CEO to recruit away from a competitor, then that is their right – they have autonomy to do so.  (Again, another turn to the NEG’s V.)


Cross-examination is when the opposing debaters stand and face the judge(s.)  Its purpose is

  • to clarify any unclear tags/titles
  • to ask the debater to answer specific questions regarding their case
  • to ask the debater leading questions that support the other’s case.

During CX, only one debater is asking the questions.  The respondent can ask for a clarification of the question, but if they start taking over the CX, it’s seen as a failure of the debater who is supposed to be asking the questions – they’ve lost control of the CX.


As you saw above, the NC also includes arguments against the AFF’s case.  AFF will take the stage next and rebut the arguments against AFF’s case and attack the NEG’s case – in 4 minutes.  During rebuttals, no new arguments are admitted.  You can add more evidence to your case:  if the attack on AFF’s case includes evidence that increasing minimum wage tends to create inflation, AFF can respond with evidence that shows the increased inflation doesn’t harm the workers because they’re already above the place where the inflation will affect them.  AFF cannot introduce another argument that says employers are obligated to meet the needs of their employees.  This is unfair and a judge may rule against AFF for trying such a thing.  The judge will rule against AFF if NEG points it out:   the judge has some leeway to decide.

NEG’s rebuttal time is considerably longer because NEG’s 13 minutes is divided into 2 speech times.  This is balanced by AFF having the opening and closing speeches.


Key voting issues (KVI or key voters) are a neat and precise way to sum up a case.  Many judges like KVIs.  I go either way – if a debater wants to give them to me, I’m grateful.  If they want to summarize the debate another way, that’s fine too.  A good KVI list will include the V/VC arguments:  who supported their framework better.  Why the other debater’s arguments actually supported the opposition framework better.  The next KVI should mention the contentions and why theirs are better.  Finally, any mistakes by the other debater should be noted.  If attacks were not answered, if arguments were dropped (unsupported in later speeches) or if new arguments were unfairly introduced, those should be noted.