Monash Association of Debaters

Daniel Berman

Populism, Debate and the Tea Party: How the Appeal of Populism Separates Debate from the Wider Public

About the author:

Daniel Berman is a Masters student at Kings College London.
He holds degrees from St Andrews and Bates. At St Andrews, Daniel won the
Scottish Mace. He has finalled at several other competitions, including the 2010
SOAS IV. He has judged at the 2010 World Universities Debating

The arguments and appeals used in Parliamentary Debating differ from those
used in politics. Connection between the discussion of politics in a
Parliamentary debate and those within wider society is limited. Pragmatic
considerations ranging from the selfish (“Will I be reelected”) to the practical
(“Will it work”) dominate the thoughts of politicians. Debaters have the
opportunity to engage on a higher level. Parliamentary debates often discuss
philosophical issues, but often are detached from political realities. Debaters
share the interests and passion for policy of those in the political field without
any of the responsibility or consequences. The gap between the arguments
effective in debating context and those effective in a broader environment are
most clear when we look at the field of populism.

Populism has a long history in the art of public speaking. One could say that the
original purpose of public speaking was to move the mob, at least in the Greek
context, and the ability to instill emotional vigor in a listener would almost
surely defeat any effort to appeal to logic or reason.

Modern Parliamentary debating, however, is an elitist activity. It is not
necessarily elitist in its membership, but debating is elitist in terms of how it is
evaluated. The limitation of the franchise to a handful of judges means that a
successful speech, by necessity, must target a small audience. Debaters must
play to the judges rather than the crowd. And more than few final rounds stand
as testaments to the fate of teams that forget the difference between the two.

Partly, as a result, when most debaters hear an appeal to nationalism,
parochialism, or religious conviction, they all too often dismiss such claims.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the reaction to the Tea Party Movement
in the United States. To the average debater, emotional incantations to “take
the country back” and attacks on “big government” seem to be nothing more
than generic catch-phrases when deprived of their emotional content. These
“generic catch-phrases” rely on the listener’s belief that they have been cheated,
that they have lost, not because they did not earn success or recognition, but
because it was stolen from them.

Nevertheless, while the effectiveness of the attacks on elitism may fall flat even
with many Republican debaters, whose admission to Harvard or BU stands as a
testament to the justification of the meritocratic system, the extent to which
these sentiments have appeal to those who have feel disenfranchised is testified
by the American Parliamentary Debate Associations own struggles with charges
of bias.

In the US, parliamentary debate is hampered by the triple challenges of money,
geography, and the lack of an effective feeder system, with the
former two deriving from and exacerbating the problems of the latter. The
impact is that participants in parliamentary debating tend to be more liberal
then the population as a whole.

Parliamentary debate does not exist in any real form at the secondary level in
the US education level. Debate programs, where they exist, falling into the
categories of either the various formats used by the National Forensics League
or policy. As a consequence, the bias at the University level is towards policy
debate. Even in the institutions that also feature competing parliamentary
programs, such as Harvard, the parliamentary societies are the poor cousins of
their policy brethren, often receiving little to no funding. Parliamentary debate
is therefore relegated either to institutions with a long history of Trans-Atlantic
connections, which are mostly older schools in the North East or West Coast,
or newer institutions with large financial reserves that wish to establish such
connections. The only prominent non-private institution on the list is West

Given APDA’s concentration in the nation’s northeast quadrant, it is
prohibitively expensive for schools outside of the region to participate regularly.
The result is a situation in which the American debater is overwhelmingly likely
to attend a private institution in the Northeast.

The political contours of such a concentration should be readily apparent to
anyone with a passing familiarity with contours of American politics. Of the
American teams represented at Worlds in Koc last year, twenty one out of 25
are located in states won by John Kerry, and 23 are represented by Democrats
in Congress.

Within the US, where social views contour more to class than partisan lines,
even Republican debaters at most schools steer away from questioning the
legality of abortion, the desirability of gay rights, or the science of global

The existence of “APDA Tight” on the circuit testifies to this trend, just as its
description on the organization’s website speaks for itself:

[APDA Tight] means that although some people
argue for each side of the debate, the general
characteristics of APDA as a community of college
students make the opposition side too difficult to
defend. Legalizing sodomy may be debatable, but a
vast majority of APDA debaters would support that
case, so the case could be considered tight.
Debaters who choose to run a government case in
favor of banning sodomy would be forced to
defend the position they choose.2

While the language is defensive, and the arguments reasonable, the general
points of criticism that led to the adoption of the rules regarding “APDA
Tight” cases mirrored those of many in the Tea Party.

While they may not be announcing their intention to ‘take the circuit back” or
blaming its leadership for the problems, some debaters lost rounds and thought
they lost them unfairly, and concluded that the pattern they detected indicated
systematic bias. APDA responded by passing regulations. While it is worth
noting that most tournaments now disclaim the usage of the “Apda Tight” call
because of its dubious reputation, what is more interesting is why it was

The answer is the same for any organization, because it made people feel
empowered, and no one is more determined to assert authority than when they
feel discriminated against and powerless to change it. It is this seeming
powerlessness, in the face of social changes, that in my view, drives the Tea
Party Movement.

After all, the supposed “Marxism” of Barack Obama pales in comparison to
even the most hard-line of conservatives in Europe. To such observers, it
seems especially odd to see a revolt of rural America and the lower middle class,
when it is exactly these groups that Obama’s policies are intended to help. The
truth is that the appeal of someone like Sarah Palin is something that it is based
not on a rational cost-benefit analysis, but on one’s understanding of the
national identity, and whether one considers her success a failure or an
affirmation of the American system is dependent one’s position in it.

The US has always been much further to the right than Europe in terms of
policies regarding social welfare3. This historical predilection, and its current
eruption in the form of the Tea Party Movement, cannot be understood
without describing the central role the family or at least the idyll image of the
family, plays in the lives of millions of rural and suburban American.

Whereas in Europe, or in post-religious societies generally, society is often
approached in terms of individuals relating to the state, and the major influence
on an individual’s social interactions and relations is their peers rather than their
family, in the United States the opposite is still true in many places. It makes far
less sense to talk of individuals joining a church, or buying a house, or even
interviewing for admission to a secondary school than it does to speak of a
family unit doing so. Families are members of a local church, families belong to
local sports leagues, and most clubs offer membership on the basis of family
rather than the individual. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone4 focused on this
concept of family and community as the bedrocks of democracy, and while leftleaning
himself, in blamed the decline, which he saw as a negative, on among
other things, woman entering the workforce, female empowerment, and the rise
of communication technology.

Whatever the causes, the real effects, and whether any such society ever existed,
most Americans like the idea of it and like to believe it did. Hence the
enormous value placed on parental authority over children, which in the US
often goes much further than in other Western countries. Provided they receive
some sort of educational experience and do not face outright and obvious
physical abuse, children can be all but imprisoned by parents until they are 18.
The concept of a parent forcing a 17-year-old into an ex-gay program or
sending them to a boot-camp would be unthinkable in much of Europe. It is
looked upon as a regrettable if legally untouchable parental prerogative in the
states, more to uphold the principle rather than the individual circumstance.

While the reality, even in rural America, is far from any sort of idyll, the very
preponderance of failed marriages and broken homes in many cases makes the
imagery even more important. As a consequence, both fiscal and social issues
are often viewed in the context of an attack on it.

This can be seen in the different way America and Europe view single-mothers.
In Europe, single-mothers are an accepted cog in the wheel of society. Recent
revelations about the marital status or lack thereof between the new Labour
Leader Ed Milliband and his long-time partner focused more on the birth
certificates of the children than on the acceptability of the relationship itself.5
This can also be seen in the outcry over efforts by the new UK Conservative
government to cap benefits - the controversy is whether £26K a year is too low,
rather than over whether the benefits are deserved.6

In America by contrast, single-mothers are viewed as result of social failure,
with figures ranging from pro-choice activists who define the right to chose in
terms of eliminating “unwanted” children to those on the right who blame the
perverse incentives of the welfare system, all agreeing that they are a burden,
and that their very existence symbolizes a failure of governmental policy.
Whereas criticism of Ed Milliband was mostly localized to right-leaning
tabloids, discussion of out-of-wedlock pregnancy of Bristol Palin mostly
focused on how well her mother had handled, or not handled, the “tragedy”.
The media asked whether her “parenting” was to blame, and CNN being sure
to note that "Sen. McCain knew this and felt in no way did it disqualify her
from being vice president... Families have difficulties sometimes and lucky for
her she has a supportive family."7

That the revelation was an open invitation for Andrew Sullivan to suggest that
Palin’s son Trig was not in fact her own,8 and for the comedy show Saturday
Night Live to posit an incestuous relationship between Todd and her daughter
illustrated the willingness of many to see pregnancy as a negatively indicative
character trait.9 If a mother ran a family where a 17- year old girl could get
pregnant, what other awful things could that mother be guilty of?

For all the talk of big government in Europe, the idea that it is the
government’s job to ensure that single woman do not have or raise children
would be met with mockery, but it is an accepted gospel in small government
America. When states vote to ban single parents from adopting, as Arkansas did
in 2008, a clear difference exists in terms of individual rights - irrespective of
whatever focus the Tea Partiers may place on claims of constitutional fidelity.10

As such, there is substantial hostility to welfare because individuals are far less
likely to see programs as promoting the “general welfare” as opposed to that of
a group that is not part of the greater whole. When Obama says that “we need
to” insure the uninsured, his use of “we” did not include the uninsured, at least
not for all his listeners. Implied was that “we”, the taxpaying, married,
productive citizens who actually have insurance should carry the burden of
those “people” who for some reason or another haven’t managed to get their
insurance (or work) in order.

Most of all however, these policies are a direct threat in the eyes of Americans
who embrace the traditional “idyll”. This is because they threaten to undermine
the vertical structure in favor of a horizontal one. In the view of the Tea Party,
the current employer based system of health care leaves a family dependent on
the insurance of its working member. Leaving aside for a moment that this
leaves the family at the mercy of potentially losing their breadwinner’s job, this
creates an incentive to keep the family together, and reinforces the vertical
power of the parents and the husband in particular. By contrast, national health
care threatens to leave the individual dependent on the state, and therefore with
no intermediary, and welfare or other programs for single-mothers actively
encourage divorce. As absurd as it may seem, Talk Radio is awash in stories of
social workers “urging” women to divorce their husbands in order to go on
welfare, and like myths about Obama’s Health Care plan, the very volume with
which they are repeated adds the legitimacy which the lack of a factual basis
fails to provide.

This focus also explains the reflexive social conservatism of so many in rural
America. For all the talk of whether social or fiscal conservatism should be
preeminent among the “intellectuals” of the movement, the “Tea Party”
candidates are without exception Pro-Life and opposed to Gay Rights. The
latter, so often indecipherable to observers who note that Gay issues affect no
one other than, well Gay individuals, makes perfect sense in the context of the
idyll of a vertical family structure. While same-sex marriage is increasingly open
to debate, the increasing efforts to pass anti-bullying legislation, and to teach
tolerance in the schools, is a direct attack on the very basis of the American
family: the control of parents over the education of their children.

As for Sarah Palin, she is seen as the personification of the American idyll. She
didn’t go to Harvard. She had trouble paying for and completing college. She
married her high school sweat-heart, and instead of abandoning family for
work, she brought up three kids. And despite all this she made good. She went
all the way to being the Vice Presidential nominee of a major party, and perhaps
a positional President. Her reward for her achievements? An unprecedented
assault from the elites of both parties and the media, attempting to term her
stupid, provincial, and simple-minded, not to mention an effort to attack her
family, to make an issue of her daughters pregnancy, and to turn her own
potential future son-in-law against her. She is the daughter to many older rural
Americans wish they had, and they don’t take kindly to her treatment, as her
martyrdom has rapidly become their own.

Such anti-elitism falls on deaf ears in a debate. Debaters are almost by definition
more accomplished educationally than Palin, and as a consequence her success
is a failure of the system to recognize “merit”. In effect, Sarah Palin, rather than
being “someone like us” who made good, is someone less intelligent, less
distinguished, and less qualified, who through a failure of the system, founder
herself in a position of unwarranted importance.

In the end, what the current political conflict in America represents is a battle
over the meaning of the word “merit”. Does merit come from earning an
impressive degree and gaining a high paying job? Or from doing the “right
thing” and settling down, raising a family, and “working hard,” since implicit in
this belief system is that people cannot completely fail unless they fail to try.
Because each individual tends to define merit so as to apply it themselves,
different social classes in America are speaking a different language.

Debate, the province of University students occurs in a universe in which the
very presence of a debater in the room implies merit, and as a consequence
there is little patience for rhetoric that assumes the contrary. Unless of course
one feels that their “merit” is not being rectified, in which case the same
accusations of symptomatic bias are all too often heard, whether on the basis of
school, or politics.

The reality is that while the appeal of specific populism is always based on one’s
position in the social structure relative to the target audience, populism
generally is invoked in many fields. That what we all too often term “populism”
does not exist in debate is not a claim that populism as a whole is non-existent,
but rather that this particular strain is not effective in the university debating
context. Its appeal is emotional and debaters can be as vulnerable to it as
anyone else.


1 See


3 See Alesina et al (2001) Why Doesn’t the US have a European Style Welfare State?

4 Robert Putnam (2000) Bowling Alone

5 “Ed Milliband Becomes First British Political Leader of a Major Party to be Living with His Family outof
Wedlock” Glen Owen The Daily Mail September 27th 2010

6 Probably the most right-leaning mention I can find is the Economist which termed the announcement
of the cap “inept” while noting it was a move in the “right direction”

7 “Palin’s Teen Daughter is Pregnant” CNN Dana Bash September 1st. 2008

8 “Transparency Please” Andrew Sullivan The Daily Dish, The Atlantic Monthly, 6th of October 2008

9 “SNL “Palin Incest” Skit Angers Viewers” The Boston Channel September 22nd 2008

10 The Amendment in question was mostly fought on the issue of adoption by Gay couples. There is
however no legal standard for proving that an individual is part of one, as all Gays in Arkansas, were, per a
2004 Amendment, legally single. As a consequence, necessity, ad well as the rhetoric of “every child having
a right to a mother and father” paved the way for the state to ban adoption for all individuals cohabitating
outside of marriage. In any event, Ed Milliband would have his children taken by child services in