It’s not high school anymore–Winning Policy Debates

To debate or not to debate? Sorry to be so trite, but that really is the first question. Especially in the immigrant rights movement, where all of us feel (justifiably, I think) that the anti-immigrant side gets way more attention and credibility than it deserves, there is a lot of controversy about whether we’re doing our cause any favors when we engage in debate with those voices. Are we unwittingly legitimizing them by sharing a stage? Or is it a part of our obligation as advocates to ensure that their views do not go unchallenged? Uncharacteristically, I remain a bit ambivalent on this question. For the most part, I refused debates with anti-immigrant organizations/individuals when doing so meant that the event would not be held (because they couldn’t/wouldn’t do the debate one-sided and could find no one else appropriate for our side) and agreed when it was clear that the alternative was uncensored time for the anti-immigrant perspective. My one clear absolute rule was that would not debate Minutemen. When asked for names of people to represent ‘the other side’ I always suggested someone from Immigration and Customs Enforcement or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services since, as bureaucrats, they tend not to be zealots but rather to represent the government’s position.

Most of the time, because he was the most presentable figure they had and because he (like me, I’ll admit) likes to debate, I debated Kris Kobach. I debated him when he was a congressional candidate, after he lost his bid, when he was representing FAIR in court, after that case was dismissed, and even once after he became Chair of the Republican Party in Kansas. I debated him on television (live and recorded), on radio, and in front of live audiences. I debated him indirectly, in legislative hearings (see the post on testimony), but this post refers to direct debates, where, sometimes alone and sometimes joined by 1-2 other people (or, on one occasion, an entire panel), we engaged in a debate of sorts around questions of immigration policy.

Until I can figure out how to get VHS tape of one of those videos into digital format so that I can upload some snippets here (can anyone walk me through that?), I’ve tried to go through my notes and the coverage from those debates to come up with some thoughts to share. I know that debates are more common on very hot-button topics such as immigration, but I have worked with some students and advocate colleagues who have also been called upon to debate, and it is my hope that this can be helpful in the future.

  • Figure out who you are trying to convince and tailor your arguments very clearly towards them. Remember, you are NOT going to win over the person(s) against whom you’re actually debating (even if you did convince them on a couple of points, they could never admit it, or the debate would no longer work!), so don’t bother trying to figure out what might sway them. They are not your target; you’re aiming at: the media, undecided legislators, your potential community allies, the general public…you have to decide, but know that in advance, because it must shape your message. You should address your opponent some of the time, because otherwise you can just look rude, but make sure to look at the moderator or audience often, since they’re the ones with whom you want to connect.
  • Have a message box in front of you, if at all possible, and refer to it in every single answer/response. You don’t need a whole stack of references; in fact, if you bring a ton of material, you’ll just look flustered trying to look through it to find what you want. Instead, you want a box with 4 quadrants, one core message in each, and a few carefully chosen supporting facts. If you can work something from that box into every time you open your mouth, you will be largely successful in getting your message across. Practice using this message box, if at all possible, both to make statements that you really want to get in and to answer questions in some sort of practice debate.
  • Appearances count. A lot. In a media training once, I watched my friend Angela Kelley debate Dan Stein (Director of FAIR) with the volume turned off entirely. After we watched the debate in silence, the trainer asked us who won. His point was that many people watching debates are going to only partially pay attention and may not understand a lot of the content, so how you come across matters a lot. Dan Stein looked angry and sweaty and kind of scary, while Angela was smiling and pleasant and seemed generally satisfied with life and, therefore, with the position that she got to represent. That made a difference. I’m not saying to look as though increased funding for anti-retrovirals or new foster care policies are happy, wonderful topics, because they are tragedies with real consequences for people, but you will greatly enhance your cause if you appear calm, kind, poised, and confident rather than snarky and mean and nervous.
    Note: I remember in one debate when Kobach actually said, “what we need is to reform the immigration system so that people are coming here legally.” I knew that wasn’t exactly what he meant, but he had said it, so I was able to smile broadly and say, “Kris, that’s wonderful that we’ve come to an agreement on such a critical issue. I hope that Congress can move forward on such an agenda with your blessing.” He got very flustered, the moderator and the audience actually laughed, and a journalist told me later that it was a really good moment, because I was able break across the adversarial stance and humanize myself.

  • Appeal to values, not facts. If ever we need a really good frame, it’s when we’re debating. You can’t throw facts at each other back and forth because, remember, you’re trying to convince some third party, and they’ll conclude that they can’t possibly know whose facts are correct, so they’ll just go with the position that most resonates with their pre-established values. So you have to frame your argument accordingly.
    Note: This, too, reminds me of a moment in another debate. Kobach had referenced several studies that (supposedly–they don’t fit my frame, so I discount them!) claim that immigrants are a huge drain on the economy. There are several others that make the opposite claim, but rather than pull them out, I said, “Kris, we both know that for every study you cite, I could cite another one that says exactly the opposite. People don’t want to hear us throw numbers at each other. They know that immigration has built this country–they and their ancestors lived that story. What they want now is an immigration system that ensures that immigration can continue to work for the U.S. as it has throughout its history.” He set his stack of economic analyses aside, because that argument was now neutralized.

  • While you want to be pleasant, you don’t have to be nice. Remember, you want people watching/listening to think that they can identify with you, but you are not trying to make friends here. In a debate with a Missouri State Representative, who had claimed several times that his anti-immigrant student legislation was ‘not racist, not aimed at Hispanics, just concerned with not subsidizing illegal behavior’ or some other nonsense, at the very end (it was on KCUR, so I knew exactly when it would be over), he got caught up with a caller and said something like, “these people have more babies than American families, and if we’re not careful our kids will have to speak Spanish if they want to compete.” Was it a little bit mean to then use my last statement (the end of the show) to say, “See, Steve (Kraske, the host), the proponents of this legislation may claim otherwise, but, at its core, it’s a racist attack on the hopes and dreams of Latino families who, just like every other Missouri family, are only asking for a chance to build a better life for their children”? Maybe. But it’s true, and it worked.
  • Find out as much in advance as you can about the parameters of the debate before you begin. What topics will be the moderator’s focus? Will questions from the audience be allowed (if so, try to convince them to have them screened first, since it’s so frustrating to have to sit through someone’s diatribe to get to their inane question)? How much time will you have? What format will be followed? How many people will participate, and how will time be divided?
  • Just like with the media, remember that you don’t have to directly answer every question (whether from the moderator or in response to something that your opponent just said). Look at every chance you have to speak as another opportunity to say what it is you want to say, and just figure out how to tie that into the opening you’ve been given.
  • Try to establish some control early on–whether that means greeting the moderator warmly, because it makes it look as though you have some sort of ‘in’; talking to some folks in the audience (same reason), or greeting your opponent with enthusiasm for the debate. Social workers, this is all about using what we know about human behavior to create the conditions in which a message of justice can prevail!
  • Expect that you’re going to be nervous, and remember that everyone watching is, in part, rejoicing that they’re not you, having to be up there. It’s okay to be human and okay to be scared, but it’s just not okay to use that as an excuse not to stand up for what we know to be right. I remember before my first televised debate with Kobach, sitting in the parking lot of KCPT, fervently wishing that I was the lunch delivery guy, because he didn’t have to debate Kobach on TV. On the way out, though, I was really honored to be able to represent people who trusted me to carry their stories, and it felt really good.

    If you have footage of debates that you’ve done, I’d love to see them! If you’re preparing for a debate, as an advocate, what concerns or questions do you have? What are your core messages, and what is your audience? I’d even love to practice with someone who’s getting ready to debate on a key policy issue. We know that we’re on the right side, when we’re standing up for vulnerable people and battling entrenched social problems, and, with a little skill, we can use debates to convince others of that too!

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  • 2 responses to “It’s not high school anymore–Winning Policy Debates

    1. These are great pointers–and I can completely see you debating Kobach–love it! Years ago, I went to an event for the Democratic Party in downtown Lawrence, where I met a gentleman from Clinton’s PR firm in from DC. Dan Owen was running for DA against McKinney (forgot her first name, believe her last name is accurate). As an audience member, I asked her about her handling of a hostage situation on her watch during which a mother (with whom I was familiar) and her minor children had gasoline poured on them with a lighter held to them by their father. Why her office and SRS did not work toward terminating his parental rights, etc. “I knew that question would be planted here tonight,” was her response. Forrest Swall is also in the audience and we’re on tape–the question was edited by the t.v. station–probably too inflammatory. I also spoke, doing the rounds with the man from DC, during a separate segment on domestic violence on tv and radio related to Hillary Clinton’s domestic violence initiatives to change existing laws at the time, telling my personal story. Knowing just enough to be dangerous, and probably not knowing enough about brevity to consolidate into 15 second sound bites, (tv) I realized I don’t like the pressure of hurried messages and don’t watch the tape as part of “family movie” time. I really do need to learn better how to “think on my feet” (tv). I’m more comfortable with radio (no one can see you sweat) and I was once a high school DJ and radio engineer, so being in a studio is more comfortable. Wish I had known about the message box at the time!

      • Thanks so much for sharing this story, Gayle! I actually think I prefer TV now, to radio, because so much communication is nonverbal, so we have a whole other plane on which to communicate that we are reasonable and welcoming and approachable…it enables us to couch our verbal message in nonverbal cues that make it more comfortable for those for whom the message itself is a bit of a leap, if that makes sense?

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