No matter the controversy, American democracy has benefited from debate.

Malcolm X learned to debate while serving time in prison. He sharpened those skills in debates with civil rights leaders over political strategies. Abraham Lincoln learned through his local lyceum how to catch a formidable opponent in a rhetorical net. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper studied elocution at her uncle’s Academy for Negro Youth. She took her no-nonsense attitude about Black emancipation to mixed audiences in the Reconstruction South. Through verbal acumen and convincing analogies, citizens wrestled with the biggest questions of their time.

Unfortunately, since the 1970s, fewer Americans are skilled in the arts of persuasion. Civics, when it is taught, focuses more on knowledge than on building the rhetorical skills necessary for living in a democracy. Our system of checks and balances was designed to channel controversial energy into structured disputes, where each side attempted to persuade the other until they achieved a majority. “Justice ought to hold the balance between them,” argued James Madison in Federalist 10. “Yet the parties are and must be themselves the judges.” Given that persuasion and judgment are at the heart of civic education, why have Americans turned their backs on debate?

For the last thirty years, there has been a steady campaign to discredit debate. The Essential Partners Project (formerly known as Public Conversations Project) claims that debate creates a “threatening” atmosphere in which participants are subject to “attacks and interruptions.” The discussion becomes more polarized and the positions more entrenched as each side “express[es] unswerving commitment to a point of view.” Instead of debate, they promote dialogue, which promotes an atmosphere of safety in which agreements are more easily secured. Dialogue, they believe, does a better job of creating respect for the opposition than the more adversarial format of debate. 

While I whole-heartedly endorse the fruits of dialogue, I disagree with their characterization of debate. Rather than intensifying hostilities, parliamentary debate increases mutual understanding and respect. Instead of reinforcing one point of view, debate reveals each team’s weak spots and the opposition’s strengths. By creating a container broad enough to hold divergent claims, debate increases cognitive strength. What’s more, it also works very well on Zoom.

I started using debate in political theory classes in order to make philosophical texts more political. Turn Hobbes’s theory of sovereignty into a debate proposition and suddenly the room wakes up. Instead of just reading that society requires an awesome overlord I tasked students with either defending or refuting his argument. After the 2016 election, debate became even more important. While undergraduates at many liberal arts colleges could graduate without encountering a moderate or conservative argument, debaters not only understood those points of view, they had the mental space to inhabit them.

The first step in creating a debate is to develop a proposition. I use the “This House Believes” formula to reinforce the legislative origins of debate. In a recent class on the history of U.S. Social Movements, we tweaked the proposition from “This House Believes that armed rebellion is necessary for Black Liberation” to “THB that armed resistance is necessary for Black Liberation.” Given the definitions of those two words, “resistance” gave the affirmative more latitude to make their case. Since neither team knew which side they would argue, both sides agreed to the substitution. Neither side wanted to debate a narrow term that left them with fewer options.

I allow 6 minutes for the Opening Arguments, 4 minutes for cross-examination by the opposing team, 4 minutes for rebuttals and 2 minutes for closing arguments. Both teams are aware of the proposition and the format weeks before the debate. Their position (affirmative or negative) is not determined until the prior class. I use either rock-paper-scissor (which doesn’t work on Zoom) or the toss of a coin (which does) to decide which team gets to choose its position. 

During opening arguments each side has a chance to set the tone and pacing for their position. They define their terms, such as “armed resistance,” and, if they are wise, they acknowledge the legitimate elements of the other side. They know that victory is not won by destroying their opponents but by better understanding the specific concerns of the audience, particularly their opinions and prejudices. Debaters know which arguments will be more persuasive to a progressive audience and which to a conservative. Still, even on a monoculture campus, debaters understand that platitudes and “straw man” arguments are less effective in the presence of a strong counter-argument.

Besides practicing the art of persuasion, debaters learn how to deconstruct the opposition. This is particularly true during cross-examination when each team needs to undermine some element of their opponents’ position without engaging in an all-out attack. Anthony Weston’s A Rulebook for Arguments, first published in 1986 and now on its fifth edition, provides a vocabulary to dissect their opponents’ arguments. Were the examples used by the opposing team strong enough to support their claims? Were the analogies similar enough to carry the argument? Was the authority reputable and was their interpretation credible?

After each team is challenged through rigorous cross-examination, they are given four minutes to regroup. On Zoom, this is as simple as creating separate breakout rooms for each of the teams. Judges use this intermission to consider the weaknesses exposed during cross-examination, and the most and least persuasive lines in each team’s opening arguments.

The following round of rebuttals gives each team a chance to prove how well they heard the other side. Instead of becoming more entrenched, debaters often use the rebuttal for a more nuanced presentation. Skilled debaters are not afraid to acknowledge their weakest claims. They cede points to the other side while still maintaining the importance of their position. They know that the judges, having heard the other side, will be less persuaded by dogma. Far from the common understanding of debates as shouting matches between opponents who dig their heels in, well structured debates help both sides see things in new ways. 

After the rebuttals, the teams regroup briefly for the closing arguments. If the class is happening on Zoom, I ask the debaters to use the chat function to privately communicate their strategy for the closing argument. Meanwhile, the judges review their notes on the rebuttal. Were the key questions posed by the opponent sufficiently addressed?

The closing arguments reverse the order of delivery. For this final round the negative team goes first, giving the affirmative team the final word. The affirmative has the heavier lift; unlike the negative they must prove their case. Given that imbalance, the format slants slightly in their favor. 

Before taking the vote, I ask each judge for their opinion on the most and least persuasive elements of each side. Persuasion is a key term. I want the judges to consider their inner moral compass, to recognize the difference between being persuaded and being manipulated. 

After the vote, I give the debaters a chance to weigh in. In my twenty plus years of teaching debate, I have yet to hear a debater double down on their position at the expense of the opposition. Instead, debaters reliably speak of their opponents with admiration. Victors often express shock when the votes are tallied. “I thought for sure we would lose when you brought up Malcolm X’s argument for Black self-determination,” said one winning debater. “No,” said her opponent, “you guys were really good. You even persuaded me.”

Despite its reputation, debate not only decreases hostilities, it increases understanding of the other side. This is not an understanding based on empathy or tolerance, but an intellectual exercise which furthers critical thinking. Judges with strong ties to one side of an argument express admiration for a debater who gives them reasons to pause. “I hadn’t ever thought about it in that way,” commented one judge. This rare intellectual pleasure may explain debate’s popularity for most of this country’s history. 

Unlike dialogue, debate forces us to make decisions, to judge the pros and cons of a proposed solution. As James Madison well understood, being both a judge and a party in a controversy shows us how to disagree constructively. Instead of becoming more entrenched in a position, the brain of a debater expands to appreciate the complexity of an issue. Given the decisions facing this country, we need a citizenry skilled in debate. Not only does it expand the minds of the debaters but of the public itself.