How critical theory is radicalizing high school debate
New rhetorical tactics are creating a generation of nihilists
Every year, hundreds of thousands of students around the U.S. participate in competitive debate. Most start competing at a young age (early high school or even middle school), eager to learn about politics. At its best, the activity teaches students how to think critically about the government and the trade-offs that policymakers face. They are assigned to argue for different positions that they may not agree with and engage with their peers’ diverse perspectives.
I started competing in Parliamentary debate at 12 years old. Growing up in Silicon Valley—a place full of scorn for politics—and attending a STEM-focused high school, debate was how I learned about public policy and economics. Often, the activity broadened and enriched how I thought about politics. But debate has strayed from these goals. Instead of expanding students’ worldviews, debate has increasingly narrowed to become a microcosm of critical theory.
The rise of critical theory in high school debate
In a traditional debate round, students argue over a topic assigned by the tournament — for example, “The U.S. should adopt universal healthcare.” One side is expected to argue in favor of the motion (the affirmation side), and one against (the negation side). However, in recent years, many debaters have decided to flat-out ignore the assigned topic and instead hijack the round by proposing brand new (i.e., wholly unrelated to the original topic), debater-created resolutions that advocate complex social criticisms based on various theories — Marxism, anti-militarism, feminist international relations theory, neocolonialism, securitization, anthropocentrism, orientalism, racial positionality, Afro-Pessimism, disablism, queer ecology, and transfeminism. (To be clear, traditional feminism is out of fashion and seen as too essentialist.)
These critical theory1 arguments, known as kritiks, are usually wielded by the negation side to criticize the fundamental assumptions of their affirmation side opponents. Kritik advocates argue that the world is so systematically broken that discussing public policy proposals and reforms misses what really matters: the need to fundamentally revolutionize society in some way. For example, if the topic was “The U.S. should increase the federal minimum wage,” the affirmation side might provide some arguments supporting this policy. But then the negation side, instead of arguing that the government shouldn’t raise the minimum wage, might reject spending any time on the original resolution and counter-propose a Marxist kritik.2 Here’s an example of how the negation might introduce this kritik:
Revolutionary theory is a prior question — the aff [proposal about raising the minimum wage] is irrelevant in the grand scheme of capitalism... [You as a judge should] evaluate the debate as a dialectical materialist — you are a historian inquiring into the determinant factors behind the PMC [first affirmation speech] — The role of the ballot is to endorse the historical outlook of the topic with the most explanatory power... Vote negative to endorse Marxist labor theory of value.
Or, if the topic was “The U.S. should increase troops in the Korean DMZ,” the negation might choose not to argue against the resolution and propose a securitization kritik:
Securitization is a political decision that discursively constructs certain phenomena as threats to justify their management and extermination. The practice of security erases alternate perspectives through the dominance of Western rationalism, permitting unchecked violence against alterity. We should use this round to create space for an epistemological multiplicity that breaks down dominant discourses of North Korea.
These are two examples of negation kritiks. Additionally, sometimes the affirmation side kicks off the debate by proposing a kritik — they don’t even bother advocating for the original resolution! For example, let’s say the original topic was “The U.S. should impose a carbon tax.” The affirmation side could decide to throw the resolution out the window and instead argue for an Afro-Pessimism kritik:
Western societies are structured on Enlightenment-era philosophy that fundamentally does not value Black people as people, and defines them as slaves. Even though documents like the Constitution have been amended to end slavery, it created a society that is rotten to the core, and the only way to fix it is to burn down civil society.
Over the past 20 years, kritiks have become massively popular in competitive high school debate.3 In the 1990s, race-based kritiks started to crop up in both Policy (also known as Cross-Ex or CX) and Lincoln-Douglas — the two original high school debate formats. Since then, they’ve become ubiquitous and expanded to include many other critical theories. YouTube recordings of debate rounds started becoming available around 2015. I reviewed all Tournament of Champions semifinal and final round recordings from 2015 to 2023, and found that about two-thirds of Policy rounds and almost half of Lincoln-Douglas rounds featured critical theory.
Two new formats were started more recently, in response to this rising tide of critical theory: Public Forum in 2002 (started by CNN founder Ted Turner) and Parliamentary debate around the same time.4 These new formats were intended to focus more on public policy discussions and less on critical theory. However, critical theory has started to invade Public Forum and Parliamentary debate too. Critical theory was featured in 12.5% of Public Forum Tournament of Champions semifinals and finals from 2015-2023. I couldn’t calculate the rate for Parliamentary debate because it has fewer recorded rounds online than the other formats, but several of the Tournament of Champions rounds on YouTube (including the 2018 Finals and Quarterfinals and the 2023 Semifinals and Quarterfinals) feature critical arguments.5
Tournament of Champions elimination rounds are an imperfect representation of more local debate leagues, which tend to feature more topic-focused debate and less critical theory. However, they reflect the broader trend in the activity toward kritiks and the enormous success of these arguments. Tournament of Champions debate tournaments have a significant impact on trends in local debate. Thousands of debaters watch these rounds on YouTube and base their strategies on what they see working at the highest levels of the activity. One former Policy debater told me that in her local Salt Lake City league, debaters often ran critical theory arguments because they aspired to be nationally successful and emulate the top competitors.
Kritiks are ruining debate
After kritiks were introduced as a competitive strategy, debaters became increasingly enthusiastic about them — which is not surprising, given the left-wing skew of young and educated people. After they graduated, many debaters delved even deeper into these critical theories as college students. A lot of these college students remained involved in the debate community as judges and coaches and indicated in their publicly available judging preferences that they like critical theory arguments. As a result, the next generation of debaters familiarized themselves with these theories even more and learned how to advocate for them in order to win rounds. Many debaters, again, found that they liked these arguments. They graduated and became debate judges, and the whole cycle started again.
Below are quotes from written judge preferences from the 2023 Tournament of Champions across all four formats, which illustrate the high school debater to critical theory-loving judge pipeline (also note that “K” is an abbreviation for kritik):
“Love the K, this is where i spent more of the time in my debate and now coaching career, I think I have an understanding of generally every K, in college, I mostly read Afro-Pessimism/Gillespie, but other areas of literature I am familiar with cap, cybernetics, baudrillard, psychoanalysis, Moten/Afro-Optimism, Afro-Futurism, arguments in queer and gender studies, whatever the K is I should have somewhat a basic understanding of it.”
“Before anything else, including being a debate judge, I am a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist... I cannot check the revolutionary proletarian science at the door when I’m judging... I will no longer evaluate and thus never vote for rightest capitalist-imperialist positions/arguments... Examples of arguments of this nature are as follows: fascism good, capitalism good, imperialist war good, neoliberalism good, defenses of US or otherwise bourgeois nationalism, Zionism or normalizing Israel, colonialism good, US white fascist policing good, etc.”
“...I’ve almost exclusively read variations of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism... I find these arguments to be a valuable and fun tool in debate and am happy to evaluate these debates to the best of my ability.”
Kritik vs. kritik debates are “currently my favorite type of debate to judge. My literature knowledge is primarily concentrated in Marxism, Maoism, and proletarian feminism, and I have a baseline familiarity with postcolonial theory, queer theory, and feminist standpoint theory, but I'm down to evaluate anything as long as it's explained well.”
“Ks I have written files on/answering/into the lit for - spanos, psycho, cap, communist horizon, security, fem, mao, death cult, berlant, scranton, queerness, set col...”
“You will not lose my ballot just for running a K. Ever.”
“I am frequently entertained and delighted by well-researched critical positions on both the affirmative and negative”
Kritiks “are my favorite arguments to hear and were the arguments that I read most of my career.”
And these aren’t cherry-picked examples. I analyzed judge preferences on Tabroom and found that at the 2023 Tournament of Champions, many judges embraced critical theory across formats:
Across debate formats, familiarity with critical theory has become essential to high-level success. According to Matthew Adelstein, a former high school Policy debater who lost a round at the Tournament of Champions because his opponents argued a kritik based on personal attacks against him:
Some huge portion of the arguments that are made at the high levels of Policy debate are based on critical theory... to be successful, you have to read a lot of articles, for example, with people arguing that we should decolonize the entire United States and give back all the land to Native people, that the world cannot improve for Black people [Afro-Pessimism], and that capitalism is a terrible system.
Even in Public Forum and Parliamentary debate—which have less critical theory—debaters still have to prepare for kritiks because many judges will vote for them. A Public Forum debater who reached Semifinals at the Tournament of Champions told me: “I had to know critical theory to win... you have to be prepared in case you have to run it or go against it.” I felt the same way competing in Parliamentary debate.
Kritiks are so persuasive to left-wing judges that debaters can’t succeed in the activity without being great at them. Competitors who don’t want to argue for kritiks themselves still have to learn how to respond to them without contesting their radical premises. For example, many leftist judges will not accept a response to a Marxism kritik that argues that capitalism is good. Instead, debaters have to concede that capitalism is a bad system and make other leftist arguments like, “it’s capitalistic to fail to argue for the topic” and “Marxism isn’t the most effective response to capitalism; instead we need to look to other critical theories” (like Afro-Pessimism or transfeminism). This drives out students who don’t want to learn about critical theory and creates a vicious cycle where the only people left are kritik debaters.
Furthermore, even though kritiks philosophically attack power structures, in practice they have frequently entrenched inequities in debate. Kritiks are often (although not always) strategically employed by students from big, well-funded debate programs. Their opponents—who often attend schools with fewer coaches and resources—may not be familiar with the dense philosophical arguments. This is especially challenging because kritik teams reject the topic that their opponents are expecting, and surprise them with completely new content that they have not prepared for.
What happens in debate matters for American politics
For hundreds of thousands of high schoolers, debate is their first substantive exposure to politics —to policy ideas, to political theory (critical and otherwise), and to formulating and rebutting the sort of arguments that shape our political system.
It’s an activity that selects for kids who often go on to have important careers in politics. Here’s a list of politically influential people who competed in Policy debate at the high school or college level—Presidents Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, and Richard Nixon; Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senator Elizabeth Warren; Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Stephen Breyer; Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, Republican political advisor Karl Rove, and Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal. Of course, most debaters don’t become famous politicians, but many of them take lower-profile public service jobs, are vocal about politics, and vote consistently.
This is what concerns me so deeply about this seismic shift in the debate landscape—and why I would hate to see the Public Forum and Parliamentary formats follow the trajectory of Policy and Lincoln-Douglas. Kritiks promote a worldview with pernicious implications for American politics among a group of people who are likely to end up in positions to have a serious impact on American politics.
When debaters reject the topic and advocate for these critical theories, they choose not to engage in pragmatic policy discussions. Instead, they condemn American institutions and society as rotten to the core. They conclude that reform is hopeless and the only solution is to burn it all down. Even if they’re not advocating for kritiks, in order to succeed at the national level, debaters have to learn how to respond critical theory arguments without actually disagreeing with their radical principles.
High school debate has become an activity that incentivizes students to advocate for nihilist accelerationism in order to win rounds. It’s the type of logic that leads young people to label both parties as equally bad and to disengage from electoral politics. What most normal people think debate is about — advocating either side of a plausible public-policy topic — is no longer the focus. With kritiks taking a larger share, debate is increasingly societally rejectionist. Too often the activity is no longer a forum for true discussion, but a site of radicalization.
Critical theory has many different definitions as used by people in the political discourse, but this Wikipedia definition is a good fit for how high school debaters think about it: “a critical theory is any approach to social philosophy that focuses on society and culture to attempt to reveal, critique, and challenge power structures… it argues that social problems stem more from social structures and cultural assumptions than from individuals. It argues that ideology is the principal obstacle to human liberation.”
The first two kritiks (Marxism and securitization) are from the Oregon FV Playbook, a collection of college debate arguments that many high schoolers use. The third kritik (Afro-Pessimism) was taught at the Point of Information Parliamentary debate camp.
Here’s a brief timeline of the development of the different high school debate formats:
1920: Policy debate is founded
1980s: Lincoln-Douglas debate is founded
1990s: Kritiks come to Policy and Lincoln-Douglas and soon become popular
2002: CNN Founder Ted Turner launches Public Forum
2009: Parliamentary debate is founded
2010s: Kritiks come to Public Forum and Parli, but are much less popular than in Policy and Lincoln-Douglas
These formats were started as a response not only to critical theory, but also to speed debate — often a related phenomenon. If you watch any of the examples of kritiks that I’ve linked to, it’s likely you will not be able to understand what the debaters are saying because they’re talking so fast. I abhor this trend, but it’s not the focus of this article.
Parliamentary debate has had an unusual trajectory: it’s the only format to take significant action against the rise of critical theory. In 2019, the National Parliamentary Debate League Board elected a slate of candidates who opposed critical theory. These new Board members selected judges for the National Championship who would not vote for these arguments. As a result, the prevalence of kritiks declined in this format. However, they are still a part of the activity and important to learn for high-level success.