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Sept. 2, 2020, 6 a.m.

Yes, Team Policy Counterplans Can Be Topical.

Short Link: http://www.jsmtech.org/counterplans
Read Time: 13 min

I recently read an article from AcePeak on why debate counterplans should never be topical. I strongly disagreed, which is why I would like to lay out my position on this matter.

Debate Has No “Rules” 

As Noah Howard over at Ethos Debate put it (you should totally read that article for more reasons why topical counterplans are legit), “debate has no rules.” Sure, you have the bare minimum rules to ensure that there’s fair competition for both teams — rules such as proper citations for evidence, you can’t fabricate evidence, you can’t use bad language, your conduct shouldn’t be offensive, etc. But in terms of theory, debate has no rules. You can run whatever arguments you want, and do pretty much anything you want, it’s all fair game. 

However, there are certain debate theories that most people generally agree upon, because it would be hard to not agree on them. For instance, no new arguments in the rebuttals, the affirmative shouldn’t run a case off-topic or run new responses in the 2AR, etc. 

Then we get to debate theory that debaters and coaches disagree on. Examples of this include the usage of counter plans and the order of a topicality shell. 

The reason why this matters is that counter plans in a round are all up for debate as we should expect. A judge should look at the arguments of the affirmative and negative in regards to counter plans, and make a decision from those arguments. I’d like to point out that while judges may have their own personal opinions on counter plans, just like any other personal bias for a specific argument, they may not use that in determining whether or not a counter plan can be topical or not and is valid in the round. Debate is more fun and enjoyable for everyone when bias does not play a part and skew the results. 


Three Camps 

Ultimately, there are three camps when it comes to counter plans in policy debate. Here’s how the National Christian Forensics and Communication Association (NCFCA) puts it

  1. No counterplans. These theorists believe that only the affirmative team is given fiat power to enact a plan and therefore negatives can never run a counterplan. This view is not very popular amongst most debaters and coaches, but it does exist. The weakness of this position is that it artificially constructs the debate round to rule out a very real-world debate strategy: countering a plan with an opposing plan.
  2. Only nontopical counterplans. Others believe negatives have a fiat power parallel to that of the affirmative such that affirmatives have the power to affirm the resolution with a plan and negatives have the power to negate the resolution with a counterplan. Under this view, negative counterplans must be nontopical. These theorists take the position that the affirmative team’s job is to affirm the resolution and the negative team’s job is to negate the resolution. As long as the negative is negating the resolution, it can run a counterplan. This is perhaps the most popular view amongst theorists. The weakness of this position is that it limits counterplans to areas outside of the resolution when that is not always the case in real life.
  3. Topical or nontopical counterplans. Other theorists believe that the job of the negative team is only to negate the affirmative team’s plan and not the resolution itself. These theorists could be persuaded to vote for topical counterplans. The weakness of this position is that it allows the affirmative team to argue that there’s no real reason to vote negative in a round where the negative team agrees that the resolution should be affirmed. In cases where counterplans are not mutually exclusive with the affirmative plan, affirmatives can also argue that both the affirmative plan and negative counterplan can be enacted by the affirmative team.  

I’m going to go ahead and ignore the first camp, since if you’re reading this, you support counter plans. Camp number two, for those who believe that non-topical counterplans are the only possibility, is also known as resolutionism. We call it resolutionism because in this camp, theorists argue that the affirmative must prove the resolution to be true and the negative must show it to be false. If the negative team runs a counter plan, according to this camp, then they are proving the resolution true, and thus an affirmative ballot would be warranted since the resolution would be fulfilled either way.

In the third camp, we have the idea that any counter plan is acceptable. This theory is called planism. The reason behind that, the planism theorists argue, is that affirmative teams are given the resolution, but once they have it, they pick a case to narrow the debate down to a specific policy that should be passed. In the theory of planism, the affirmative’s only burden is to uphold the stock issues for their plan — topicality (that they’re on topic), inherency (that there’s actually a problem that needs to be solved), significance (how much we need the plane and the advantages that would occur), and solvency (that the proposed plan would fix the problem). That can pretty much just be simplified down to “if the plan is a good idea and doesn’t have any disadvantages that outweigh the advantages, then we should pass it.” Planism argues that the affirmative affirms the plan, and the negative negates the plan — not the resolution. 

Why CPs Can Be Topical

I am a firm believer in the theory of planism for counter plans. My reasons behind this are quite simple. Common sense, purpose of policy debate, and education. 

    1) Common Sense 

Planism just simply makes sense. Let’s take this example. You’re at your house hanging out with one of your friends when both of you get hungry. The resolution of “Resolved: We should eat at a fast food restaurant” is then proposed by your friends. Since we’re never usually arguing theoretical aspects of a resolution in real life, your friend decides to run the case of going to McDonalds. He argues that the problem right now is that both of you are hungry and that it’s a big problem because being hungry feels terrible. To solve that problem, he proposes that you and him should go to McDonalds and buy a double cheeseburger. 

Now you really have two options here. Either you disagree with an aspect of your friend’s plan — such as you guys not being hungry, or being hungry isn’t that bad, or even that going to McDonalds won’t stave off your hunger enough — or you agreeing with all the problems your friend brought up, but disagree with solvency and so you present a counter plan. Your counter plan would be that of going to Burger King and buying a Whopper. This would better solve your hunger problem, you argue, because Whopper’s are bigger and more filling than a McDonald’s double cheeseburger.

Your friend is the affirmative team, and you were the negative team. No sane person would argue you have no right to bring up the counter plan of going to Burger King instead. This is because we make counter plans like this all the time. My mom tells me to clean my room right now, and I counter plan with doing it in 10 minutes. Or I ask my friend if 1 PM would work for a debate round, and they may counter with the counter plan of 4 PM. There’s no denying that common sense is on the side of planism.

Just to reiterate, resolutionism argues that all the affirmative has to do is prove the resolution true. They argue that if the negative runs a topical counterplan, the resolution is proved true, and thus the affirmative should win. But let’s just pause and think about the logic of that position for just one second. The resolutionism argument here is pretty much your friend just coming up and saying he wins because you agree that you guys are hungry and need to eat to prevent the uncomfortable feeling of starvation. But let’s think about it. How does counter planning with the idea of Burger King make going to McDonalds any more better of an idea? Just because you agree that there’s a problem that exists, doesn’t automatically mean that going to McDonalds is a good idea. That’s a logical fallacy and a major flaw in the logic of resolutionsm. 


As a direct result of the AcePeak article I mentioned, I polled 40 NCFCA team policy debaters. And here are the results. While I’m surprised so many people voted for the only topical counterplans, that is the category that takes the majority at 52.5%. The second most category is both topical and untopical counter plans at 30%, the third category is untopical counter plans at 12.5%, and finally neither being acceptable at only one vote. 

Poll: Topical CPs?

Let’s try to group up the numbers into the theory views. Resolutism really only had one option on here, so that means that only 5 participants (or 12.5% of respondents) believe that counter plans must always be un-topical. Planism had quite a few more options — the theory encapsulates both the only topical and both topical and un-topical counterplan camps. Combining both of those means that 33 (or 82%) of participants support planism over resolutionism. I believe that this correlation is simply because counter plans make the most common sense since we use them in daily life.


    2) Purpose of Policy Debate 

One flaw I find very interesting in resolutionism, is that it argues that the affirmative must always prove the resolution true, and the negative must always negate it. In a value or fact debate, this would not be a problem, and I would completely argue with resolutionism there. The problem, however, is that policy debate is not a value or fact debate. No sane policy debater is going to go up to the lectern and argue that they don’t need to pass a policy in a “policy” debate round. But that’s the type of argument that resolutionism depends on. However, resolutionism debaters still run plans — which in my opinion is a direct contradiction of their views. If the affirmative only needs to prove the resolution true (i.e, your friend only has to prove that there is a severe problem and that’s it), then why is a plan needed? 

Now with that being said, resolutionism draws a dangerous double bind for affirmatives. One that essentially kills the position, and as far as I am aware, I don’t think that there is a good response to it. A smart negative debater going against a resolutionism affirmative debater can put the affirmative in a tricky double bind. Here’s how. In the first negative constructive, the negative can present the topical counterplan. The affirmative in the second affirmative constructive will bring up arguments about how topical counterplans are horribly trash and how the affirmative must affirm the resolution and the negative must negate, and since the negative provided a reason the resolution should be true, the affirmative has already won. What the smart negative debate can do in his next speech then is take the affirmative speaker’s arguments to face value and present an amazing DA from a completely separate case, and double bind the affirmative. Taking the example of the fast food resolution, if your friend argued you can’t propose the counterplan of Burger King, your second response (apart from your first of “that’s ridiculous”) can be to simply bring up the DA of Popeyes having uncooked chicken in some of their nuggets. Either the affirmative continues to argue that they have to uphold the entire resolution (and thus must respond to the amazing and unbeatable DA that doesn’t even apply to their plan) or they concede the counterplan to you. Hopefully, the affirmative made the mistake of not making any other arguments against your counterplan in his second constructive. If this is the case, then the affirmative cannot make any new arguments against the counterplan since his next speech is the 1AR, and thus you have an easy dub that can be sold to community judges, alumni, or coaches easily. 


    3) Hurts Education

Resolutionism hurts the education that could be received in the debate round. This is simply because resolutionism essentially makes it to a point where good counterplans are non-existent. This means two things. First and foremost, less counterplans are run, meaning that debaters don’t get to utilize an amazing debate tool. Second, alternative policy options can never be considered. Think about it, affirmatives can run terrible versions of cases for whatever reasons they may have and you as the negative would never, ever be able to challenge them with your counterplan, that could fix the problem in a much better way and yield so much more benefits. 

Finals Thoughts

At the end of the day, while I would love to say that resolutionism might be a good debate theory view, I ultimately cannot. Not only is it against common sense and how we operate in the real world, but it also means that affirmatives would be put in a major double bind and the education of the round is hindered. 

But what I will say, is what I always repeat in debaters… Debate has no rules!! You are entitled to your own opinions on this matter, and that’s what’s so amazing about debate! I hope you enjoyed this post, I’m a debate nerd so I kind of geeked out a bit here. Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts — whether you agree with my views or not, all is welcome! Also, for more posts on tech, debate, and politics, sign up for my newsletter at the end of this article or on the sidebar!


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