What is Lincoln-Douglas (LD) Debate?

Lincoln-Douglas is a one-on-one debate event between two teams, as contrasted with Public Forum and Policy which are two-on-two. In Lincoln-Douglas, teams will debate a bi-monthly topic and attempt to persuade the judge that they better upheld their side of the resolution. There is an Affirmative (Aff) and a Negative (Neg) on the two resolution sides.

The name comes from the famous debates between Abramam Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in the 1861 presidential election, when Lincoln and Douglas traveled the country debating about the future of the union and slavery. What makes Lincoln-Douglas (or LD) unique is not just the one-on-one format. Given the historical context of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and the philosophical debates surrounding the future of the union, LD has a philosophical element that the other activities do not have. While Policy and Public Forum generally presume a utilitarian calculus of decision-making, the “framework” for decision-making in LD is not taken for granted. Resolutions will often introduce moral questions, forcing debaters to justify philosophical approaches. It is not uncommon to see LD debaters arguing about deontology, utilitarianism, communitarianism, virtue ethics, and more.

In LD, topics are bi-monthly. There is a September-October topic, a November-December topic, a January-February topic, and a March-April topic. This affords debaters some time to go deep on a given topic, but also preserves the chance to research a wide variety of topics over a given year.

Many LD debaters compete on what is called the “National Circuit,” which is a series of tournaments that many of the top competitors will go to. Think of the professional tennis circuit – all top tennis professionals go to the US Open, Wimbledon, etc. The national circuit is similar, with all top national competitors going to the same set of competitions. National circuit debaters tend to speak quickly, make arguments derivative of Policy, and generally use many of the more esoteric elements of debate.

Circuit debate involves speaking quickly (known as “spreading”) to make more arguments in a limited number of speeches. Judges and competitors are trained to “flow” or take notes in a very organized, fast-paced way. Debaters will also often make arguments from Policy such as Plans (specific ways to do the topic on the Affirmative), Counterplans (counter-proposals for the Negative), Disadvantages (downsides to the Affirmative Plan), Kritiks (problems with the Affirmative’s worldview), and Procedurals (rules for debate known as Theory).

Not all debaters are on the national circuit, however. Many debaters go to tournaments locally, within their state or region. These tournaments are often more “traditional” and slower-paced.