The Proliferation of Classical Politics In High School Debate

It was 2,400 years ago that a great thinker proclaimed that "Man is a political animal." Aristotle made that reference to those Greeks who were involved in politics. In the intervening 2,400 years, many a philosopher has created their own political theories. They have added to Aristotle's tradition in trying to figure out the motivation for men to participate in politics. Men like Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, even Von Clausewitz have tried to figure out the political motivation of men. Their successes, or failures, are generally discussed in academic circles, as there are so many theories as to what motivates men that no one can be accepted with any certainty. Today though, a new arena of politics has opened up, one that can provide an interesting window into the usage of classical political theory in today's world. That area is High School Congressional Debate, or more specifically, the Illinois Congressional Debate Association. After looking at what happens when the events during a congressional debate are compared to the political theories of Aristotle and Machiavelli, then the impact of those aforementioned theorists becomes clearly evident.

Aristotle systematized many things and amongst them were politics. He made a rational system of politics and he began it with asking "why?" His rational was that to understand politics, one must first understand the motivation for the actions of politics. In answering that question, there is no surprise. Aristotle states that the answer is "All men do all their acts with a view to achieving something which is, in their view, good." That is the core of Aristotelean politics, the common good, the desire for all men to do good. In order to achieve that, man must do many things. Aristotle explains the basic law of the "polis" when he says:

"Ruling and being ruled not only belongs to the category of things necessary, but also to that of things expedient;"

From that statement Aristotle laid down the law. Ruling others is necessary. It is a good thing that some rule over others and it is undeniable. This idea will come to play a huge part in ICDA politics. Therefore, so far Aristotle has established the basic desire for men, and the key restraint on man in the polis. Within that desire and restraint, what will man do? Aristotle talks about this to great lengths. Aristotle believed that there was a reason for everything. This was shown in his "four causes." Two of those causes will be clearly evident in congressional politics. They are form and final. In the form cause, the properties of an object define what that object will do. Or, put another way, the properties of the debater define what the debater will do. In the final cause, Aristotle simply looked for a reason for anything. The question "why" again rears its ugly head. Aristotle used rational thoughts to answer the question of why for everything. Pragmatically, the same question can be answered upon looking at Aristotelean politics. The final part of Aristotle that shall play an important part in understanding his relation to debate can be found by simply looking at the introduction to this paper. Man is a political animal. He is a member of his polis and is uniquely adapted to the needs of a political world. This will also be quite apparent in Illinois Congressional Debate.

After Aristotle, the next major political theorist was Machiavelli. He is father of real politics. It is with Machiavelli that the cold-hearted, bloodletting in debate finds its justification. Machiavelli's theories in The Prince revolve around one central idea. That the ideas laid out in The Prince can result in the prince maintaining, and even strengthening, his position of power. For example, the first conclusion that Machiavelli tells his audience is:

"...for it is sufficient not to transgress ancestral usages, and to adapt one's self to unforeseen circumstances; in this way such a prince, if of ordinary assiduity, will always be able to maintain his position..."

The tone there is rather transparent. This book will lay out the facts, no unnecessary text, just what a ruler needs to do. In terms of political necessities, Machiavelli lists a few. The first one is to be ruthless. In giving the example of holding territory Machiavelli reminds his audience about the Spartans and Romans. The Spartans were too generous and they lost their gains. The Romans were too harsh, but they held their gains. If political power is substituted for territory, then Machiavelli very quickly becomes applicable to Congressional Debate, as shall be seen. Secondly, he talked about the attempts by Duke Valentine to secure alliances for his son, Alexander. Machiavelli repeatedly emphasized the point that securing alliances would make him stronger in the eyes of France. This is another point that can be transfigured into debate. If the substitution of a large team is made for France, then again, it becomes an excellent indicator of congressional politics. Yet another "tip" from Machiavelli returns to the idea that ruthlessness is key. The following quote exemplifies that:

"Therefore it is necessary for a prince, who wishes to maintain himself, to learn how not to be good, and to use this knowledge and how not to use it, according to the necessity of the case."

As that quote shows, the idea that a person can remain above politics and the necessary "dirty" aspects of politics is wrong. No prince, who wishes to maintain power, or debater who wishes to remain powerful, can be good all of the time. The final aspect of Machiavelli that finds a home in high school politics, is the love/fear aspect and the near-inevitable question of hatred. When deciding whether to be loved or feared, Machiavelli makes the choice simple, feared. For when people fear, they fear at the behest of the prince, but love on their own free will. Being feared though, inevitably leads to hatred. How can that be avoided? Machiavelli says that if the people are content, they will not despise the Prince. Therefore, substitution into debate would suggest that fear can be used to take control of a debate session while the debater must make sure not to hurt any one debater so as to give them a reason to hate him. These theories have established themselves in all forms of Congressional Debate, as shall now be examined.

Before any debate session, there is the necessary politicking. This occurs in three major phases. The first phase is seating. Getting a good seat is imperative as it allows the debaters who get those good seats to influence the Presiding Officer's choices for speeches and questions. The basis for this political maneuvering is not so easily found in the political theories already mentioned. However, the intent to form alliances is apparent. The ability to influence the presiding officer puts a great deal of power in the hands of the debater doing the politicking.

The second phase of the pre-session warm-ups are the bill committees. Again, there is a great deal of politicking. Machiavellism presents a quandary here. Each individual wants to expel the bills of his stronger opponents, and yet have his own bill pushed forward. With three committees, and no chance of being in the same one as his or her own bill, each person must be able to find allies amongst different committees. Therefore, each debater must try to be as evil as possible, but not so evil that the chamber gangs up upon the individual who wants to be evil. This is Machiavelli's warning that a prince cannot be so evil that he is ganged up upon. There is also an aspect of Aristotle's common good. The common good helps to ensure that no one debater becomes too powerful at this point. Machiavelli's principle of fear works to demonstrate this. In a hypothetical situation, debater X is one of the best debaters. His chamber should be afraid of him, to at least some degree. Now debater X can control that fear by his own actions but only to a degree. Should he get a good seat, then the committee in which his bill is located in is not likely to give his bill precedence. This is to "level the playing field" and is the application of Aristotle's common good. No debater wants another debater to be ahead of each other, although each individual wants to be ahead, and so the common good prevents that.

The third part of the pre-session is the election of the Presiding Officers (POs). Each presiding officer wields enormous power, they have a great ability to promote the common good or to wield the power in such a way to as advance their own power at the expense of the opposition. Remembering Machiavelli's anecdote about the Spartans and the Romans gives a good idea as to the power of the PO. To give a clear example of this, debater X returns. He is now a presiding officer. He has taken a small lead in the debate and so now has a dilemma. Should he gamble and give good speaking order, that is calling upon people first, to bad debaters, then those who are debater X's threats will most certainly be angry and organize the people to oppose the allocation of any awards to him. The plus side to that is that while a non-threat earns a large amount of points, so too does the PO but his opposition does not earn many. On the other side of the coin, should the PO give his competition the good speaking order that they desire, he puts his lead at risk. Therefore, he is stuck between Machiavelli's Romans, being too harsh and staking everything on the ability to crush the opposition, or being the Spartans, being too friendly and allowing his opposition to organize against him and use the generosity of the PO to leapfrog ahead of him. Thus, with such power to decide the tournament in the hands of the PO, the elections become a battleground of politics. Aristotelean common good quickly collides with self-interest, which is also checked by the Machiavellian balance between being powerful and being hated. When these preliminaries are decided, the real session begins, and Aristotle and Machiavelli move into the proverbial "high gear."

When the PO says "I call this session to order at...." the game is on. As the speaking order develops and as the speeches tally up, the keen debater will look ahead. When a problem is spotted for the chamber, the debater who observes the anomaly should quickly spring into action. Whether Aristotle's common good is being threatened or whether the ability to garner power lies in that debaters hands, he resorts to his basic nature: being a political animal.

In the case of a speaker having a chance to acquire so many speeches in one round that he is placed so far ahead of everybody that they cannot catch him, then the chamber is most likely to accept Aristotelean common good as their motivation and in doing so, they will either A) prevent the speech from every coming up or B) find people to block the speaker should the speech have the ability to be discussed. The whole while that this happens, it must be done as though nobody is leading it. For that would result in hatred and the formation of an alliance against this power broker. Indeed sometimes it is even in the common good to allow such a person to jump ahead.

When a person takes an active role in "screwing somebody over" it shows that that person has a sharp eye, and a good sense for debate. Therefore, they practically paint a target that says "Here I am, I am a good debater, please stop me just as I am stopping my competition." Therefore, the game is given another level on which to play and one that Machiavelli would certainly appreciate.

Now, the situation in a debate at this point appears to be nothing more than a web of political back stabbing and in fact that is not far from the truth. At this point the strongest players are, contrary to Machiavelli's theory, those who are neither out of the competition but at the same time those who have done nothing to antagonize the chamber. Keeping in mind the intention of all debaters to win, and remembering previous situations, it becomes obvious that the power can shift back to those who are crushing their opposition. The Machiavellian plans to form alliances to scare off France become alliances against the "big three" of Highland Park, Deerfield, and Stevenson. They are the giants and so as they maneuver against each other, the other schools form shifting alliances to do anything and everything to stop, or at least hinder, those schools from carrying off the tournament by themselves. These Machiavellian alliances typically do not last for more than one power play and are simply an example of the degree to which man resorts to his basic animal state in an attempt to win at all costs.

As this is all going on the clock slowly winds down. When the sessions shift and the POs change, the game opens up again. Tactics that the previous PO was aware of but that he/she let slide, may not longer be tolerable and for whomever the previous PO is an ally of, the situation gets worse, but for those whom he/she had been screwing over, the situation vastly improves. In a sense, the game can flip slides in a heartbeat.

As the session tick on, and as the speeches add up, the ferocity increases as well. Aristotle had said that man was a political animal and as the opportunities decrease, the Machiavellian instinct to win and to go for the throat overrides all control and the debaters degenerate into political animals. Back stabbing increases and so too do retaliatory politics. As the situation degenerates, the political maneuvering can often lead to both parties being blind sided by a third and even then perhaps a forth. At this point the PO has everybody in the palm of his/her hands and as Aristotle had said about laws and ruling, it is necessary. Thus with the savagery taking hold amongst the chamber, the rule of law and reason can only be laid down by the PO. This is yet another reason why the PO's powers are so crucial.

Too soon though, the tournament does end. The politics temporarily halt and teams recount their horror stories. That political truce quickly expires as teams do the math and try to figure out in the post-tournament analysis how to increase their lead, or to get back into the game. Thus upon the awards voting, the politics heat up again. A best bill vote can be traded for a best PO vote. Or perhaps a best PO vote for a best speaker vote. Aristotelean questioning comes back. Those who know that they are not going to win an award do not hold their vote, they trade it for a political favor. Returning to the idea of examples, debater X is now running for best PO. However, he is also on the board for having been nominated as a best speaker. Should the other two POs be funnier or better in any way, debater X is likely to trade his vote for himself in exchange for a vote for him as best speaker. In such a way, debater X attempts to secure more power (in the tangible form of an award) while attempting to mitigate any feelings of hatred that there might be. The final political aspect to the awards voting is the aspect of future favors. Debaters who do not have a chance of winning an award, should caste votes based on whom they can curry favor with, and make it obvious to the person whom they are voting for that that person is receiving their votes.

Aristotle and Machiavelli would both likely be aghast at the degree to which their political theories have turned hundreds of bright young debaters into political masterminds. The abilities of how to learn to manipulate and how to lie, are such impacts of the proliferation of Aristotle and Machiavelli into the High School Debate Arena. The Illinois Congressional Debate Association has never been, and will never be, the organization that it is without the support of the two most famous classical political theorists.



Mitchell Cohen and Nicole Fermon. Princeton Readings in Political Thought. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996.