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Most debate rounds go a little bit like this:

AFF: Here’s a problem, and here’s the solution!

NEG: Nah, what we have is just fine.

AFF: No, action is needed! Let’s go over the problems again.

NEG: Ehhh, nah. Still think we are fine where we are.

Then the rebuttals happen. These statements are repeated again. You get the idea. The fundamental issue of most rounds is whether the status quo should be maintained or changed. In some cases, this is a legitimate way to look at an issue. But in most cases, it’s not realistic. In real life, the existence of a problem is often beyond dispute, and the true debate (or crux) of the matter is how best to approach that problem. This is where counterplans come in.

CPs allow debate to move beyond the “yes it is/no it isn’t” that it often devolves into, and moves rounds into a more in-depth discussion of the issues. This is because CPs allow the neg to agree with the premise of the aff (their harms) while still challenging their conclusions (their plan). Without CPs, negs are forced to always disagree with the idea that change is needed, even when that assertion is verifiably unreasonable. With CPs, negs can agree to the affirmative premise (the need for change) while challenging their conclusion (their approach). When debates are opened up with CPs, they can begin to look more like this:

AFF: Here’s a problem, and here’s the solution!

NEG: I agree with your premise, but here’s an alternative approach that is far better.

AFF: No! Here’s a bunch of reasons why our idea is better than yours.

NEG: And here’s a bunch of reasons why those reasons are wrong. Let’s go back over our proposal.

Then the rebuttals happen. The merits of both proposals are debated. You get the idea. Doesn’t that sound like a more realistic debate for most issues? That’s because it is. Opening up the world of CPs allows negative teams to advocate a myriad of proposals outside the status quo. To any one problem, there are countless possible solutions. With CPs, you can explore the other 99% of possible approaches to the harms the aff proposes.

Not only does this give neg teams more strategy options and give affs the opportunity to prove that their plan is better than the alternatives, the result of this is a more nuanced debate. All too often, high school debates are overly simplistic. There are many practices that cause this, but one major contributing factor is the mindset that the neg is supposed to negate everything the aff says. When that mindset shifts to one that tries to find where the true divergence between the two positions are (the crux), you get much more in-depth and nuanced debate. CPs necessitate agreeing, in whole or in part, to the harms the aff proposes, as explained above.

Most debaters have at least a practical understanding of counterplans. A more unusual archetype of counterplans, however, is the implied counterplan. Implied counterplans are exactly what they sound like: arguments that question the link between affirmative premises and conclusions without providing an explicit alternate plan (or, in some cases, making that question the focal point of your strategy). The alternative in an implied counterplan can take many forms, but most of the time it’s in the form of a change in direction or mindset (we will get into concrete examples of what exactly that looks like later). The difference between explicit and implicit counterplans can usually be boiled down to scale: explicit counterplans challenge the specifics of the aff proposal, while implicit counterplans often challenge the overarching mindset or policy approach that underpins the affirmative plan. A common implied cp I used when I debated was the reform vs abolition. The idea was that the reform of a policy was almost always preferable to the abolition of said policy unless the policy was either 1) inherently flawed, or 2) beyond repair. We would argue that if the goal of the policy was good, then we should always try to fix the policy to make it work rather than abandon the goal when problems first arise.

This begs the question: why implied CPs? Why would they ever be preferable to explicit CPs? Here’s a few reasons.

  • Region Bias. Some parts of the country just don’t buy CPs. Whether it’s a lack of exposure or the influence of coaches or their own preconceptions, sometimes CPs just don’t work. This was the case a few years ago in the region I competed in, where many very skilled teams found themselves losing rounds they should have won because of the use of (explicit) CPs. Implying the CP allows you to sneak in your alternate idea without blowing your cover as a “straight-up” negative team. One of the most fundamental aspects of persuasion is knowing your audience. If you know your audience isn’t likely to be receptive to explicit counterplans, this is a handy plan B. (pun intended. Heh heh heh)
  • Partial Harm Agreement/Targeted Responses. Sometimes, you only want to respond to one aff harm with a CP, and not necessarily make it the focal point of your strategy. For example, when I debated the case to pull Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs) out of Turkey a few years ago, one of the biggest aff harms was the fact that the TNW’s storage facilities were not secure and as such were susceptible to theft. I responded with a one-sentence implied CP: “If the TNWs need more security, why not provide that?” The lack of security did not necessarily mean that the weapons should be pulled out of the country, it just means that they need to be more secure. We accepted their premise (the TNWs aren’t secure), but questioned their conclusion (that the lack of security meant that the TNWs have to be withdrawn). We followed that up with all of our other arguments about why we needed the weapons in Turkey, and the aff was forced to all but drop the harm.
  • Ideas as CPs. Sometimes you don’t have a CP that sounds like a traditional plan. Sometimes your alternative isn’t “give $264 billion to the ___ program.” Oftentimes, an implied CP will look more like an alternative mindset. Those CPs end up looking like this.
  1.  Find agreement (“Can’t we agree that it would be ideal if we could hold prosecutors accountable AND protect them from frivolous lawsuits?”)
  2.  Present alternative mindset/idea (“Hypothetically we could do X,Y, or Z to solve the problems in the system to get the best of both worlds without abolishing prosecutorial immunity. We should be searching for possibilities to reform the system and move us closer to the ideal before we resort to abolition.”)
  3.  Condemn Aff mindset/Impact (“The aff is operating under the false pretense that the existence of problems is a sufficient justification for abolition. This is wrong. If problems can be solved without threatening the benefits of the system we have, that would always be the preferable alternative.”)

That’s an admittedly rough outline of what it looks like (I’ll be providing a more detailed example later on), but the general idea is that you can challenge the affirmative mindset with an implied CP and talk about the benefits of taking an alternate approach without providing an explicit policy proposal.

  • Squirrel-Hunting. Implied CPs are a great tool to keep in your tool chest for those instances where a team pulls out an unexpected case you don’t have much prep on. Just ask yourself this question: “Do the affirmative harms necessarily lead to the plan they have presented?” If the answer is no, you are looking at a potential implied CP.

In essence, the flexibility and nuance that implied CPs makes them an invaluable asset to any policy debater. If you want to try and apply implied CPs to your negative strategies, here are a few ways to improve your ability to identify openings for their potential use and your ability to execute them effectively.

  • Think Simply. Debaters often fall into the trap of thinking in overly complicated terms. Try to question basic assumptions and really think about the link between affirmative premises and conclusions.
  • Find a mutual goal. The first step to using any counterplan should be to identify where the mutual goal is. Once you establish that both teams aim to achieve the same thing, then you can have the debate over which team moves you closer to that goal.
  • If a mutual goal doesn’t exist, establish a preferable one. Sometimes the crux of the affirmative team is just not a good one. In those cases, talk about where your implied cp can take the status quo, and why the achievement of your goal would be preferable to the aff goal. This will be expanded on later. (Note: you still have to make sure your CP and the aff plan are mutually exclusive.)
  • Explore Specifics. In an implied CP, you may not have many specifics. In any case, you need to give the judge at least a rough idea of how your alternative approach should actually be implemented. The line here is a bit arbitrary, but the bottom line should be this: if the judge can picture your implied counterplan as a legitimate alternative to the aff approach, you’ve been specific enough.
  • Think in terms of direction. I always found this to be the easiest way to think about cases when approaching them from a negative standpoint. Is the aff taking the status quo in the right direction? Think of all the different policy approaches and mindsets as a different path that you can take. To advocate the status quo is to advocate not moving at all. If we are to chart a new course, which way should it be? Reform? Abolition? Increased funding to X? More accountability for Y? All of these are answers to the same question: Where should we be going?

Now that all of this is established, let’s look at an example. In preparation for the 2015 Boston National Open, I spent a lot of time prepping the case of a team that ended up winning that tournament and later that year, the national championship. I knew it wasn’t a case that I was going to be able to beat in a straight-forward way, and I knew that the team would have either thought of or debated most of the strategies against the case. Here’s the rundown.

The Case: To end all funding for counternarcotics programs in Afghanistan. They justified this by numerous reports on the ineffectiveness and counterproductivity of the drug war, and how many years of eradication (the elimination of poppy crops), interdiction (the intercepting of drug trafficking) and alternative development (the incentivising of alternative crops to wean farmers off of poppy cultivation) had done very little to nothing to stem the tide of the narcotics industry in Afghanistan.

The Strategy (evidence excluded due to lengthiness)

Philosophy: Worthy Goals require Persistence

    1. We should not abandon worthy goals
    2. We should evaluate our counter-narcotics policies individually
    3. Policy should always move in the right direction

Contention 1: Counternarcotics is a worthy goal

    1. The Stability of Afghanistan requires the drug war
    2. We need to use every means possible
    3. Repeat: We should evaluate or counter-narcotics policies individually
    4. Eradication, Interdiction, and Alternative Development (AD) should be made smarter, not abandoned. (quote from Aff advocate)
    5. Repeat: Policy should always move in the right direction (Here we summed up the idea that improving the drug war and making it more effective would be the right direction, and giving up in the face of problems threatens the ongoing stability and improvement of Afghanistan’s situation.)

Contention 2: Alternative Development (at this point we concede that eradication, as one prong of the three-pronged approach to counter-narcotics in Afghanistan, was a failure.)

    1. Alternative Development programs influences household decisions to grow poppy
    2. AD has been historically successful
    3. USAID is currently shifting towards AD (This was important to the implied CP. US policy was shifting our approach in a way that we could reasonably expect to improve the drug war. Why shift course now?)

Contention 3: Interdiction

    1. Interdiction has been successful without eradication (again conceding that part of the aff plan — the defunding of eradication programs — is a good idea.)

Conclusion: The aff plan moves policy in the wrong direction

A few things of note about this shell:

1) It began with the establishment of an agreeable goal. While the aff hadn’t talked about the goal of counternarcotics in Afghanistan, a large part of this strategy comprised of establishing the potential benefits of a successful drug war in the country.

2) Concession. We conceded that the current drug war was dysfunctional, and even that one entire part of the US counternarcotics strategy had to be abandoned.

3) Direction. We talked about the affirmative approach (notice the semantic difference between “approach” and “plan,” The plan is the end result of their approach. The approach is the paradigm they are using to approach the current policy.) as moving away from a success in US policy towards Afghanistan and towards a mindset of hasty policy-making.

4) The alternative. The approach we advocated as an alternative was to try everything we can to make the current policy better before abandoning it. This was done on the back of two key questions asked in CX:

“Have we tried everything in terms of fixing our counternarcotics policy?” (Their answer: No)

“Are the goals of our policy in Afghanistan impossible to achieve?” (Their answer: No)

5) Specifics. We didn’t have a lot. But if you notice the last subpoint of the AD point, it established the fact that our alternate approach was completely realistic. USAID was already beginning to move in the right direction and was making our policy smarter.

Implied CPs are versatile tools and can be very effective when used correctly. Just keep an open mind and always question the links between premises and conclusions. The spaces in between can often be where the best strategies show themselves.

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