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Should you use a counterplan in debate?

Counterplans can be controversial. When evaluating whether or not to use a counterplan, it’s important to remember that debate strategy itself is debatable. NCFCA debate curriculum author, Christy Shipe, shares insight on this question of debate theory.

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A typical debate round is like a liberal Democrat debating a conservative Republican. The Democrat and Republican not only disagree on how to solve the problem, they philosophically disagree on the nature or even existence of the problem. A debate round in which the negative runs a counterplan is like a debate between two Republicans. Both agree that something must be done to reduce the budget deficit, but one Republican advocates cutting welfare spending while the other Republican advocates cutting defense spending. The debate centers around who has the best plan rather than the philosophical nature or existence of the problem.

A negative team usually decides to run a counterplan when it essentially agrees with the resolution and cannot think of a way to effectively defend the status quo. A counterplan can be especially effective when negative teams believe that the problem identified by the affirmative team can be solved by a plan that falls outside of the resolution. For example, negatives might argue that the problem of global warming is not best addressed by a reform to energy policy but by a reform to environmental policy.

Counterplans can be controversial. When evaluating whether or not to use a counterplan, it’s important to remember that debate strategy itself is debatable. There are hardly any official rules about which strategies teams can use in a debate round. There are some ethical constraints and certain rules related to the time of speeches, dress code, evidence citations and the like. But for most debate strategy, it’s simply up to each debate team to convince the judge.

Debate theorists fall into three basic camps when it comes to counterplans.

  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.

In all three views, the majority of theorists agree that it is the affirmative team that has the responsibility of defining the issues at stake in the debate round. For that reason, negative counterplans must address the issues that the affirmative team has chosen to address rather than a different resolutional area. Theorists also agree that when negatives choose to run a counterplan, they lose presumption in the round and have a burden of proof equal to that of the affirmative team. Some even believe that negatives running a counterplan have a slightly greater burden of proof than the affirmative team, and that presumption shifts toward the affirmative when negatives choose to run a counterplan. These theorists believe that presumption favors affirmative plans and negative defense of the status quo.

The bottom line is this: it is up to the debaters in the debate round to argue the merits of the counterplan should the negative team choose to use one. There are good arguments on both sides of every type of counterplan strategy, and debaters should be prepared for those arguments. Should you use a counterplan? Ultimately, the judge will decide.

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