By Miriam Pierson, Swarthmore College ’18
Note: If you want to get a general sense of what a countercase can look like, here’s a link to a video where the opposition team countercases. Read this article and then watch the video for further clarification.
In debate rounds, the government team generally proposes a change and the opposition team defends the world as it exists without this change. But if defending the status quo doesn’t appeal to you, you can always propose your own alternative plan. Debaters call this a countercase.
As a novice, I would frequently panic and try to countercase, and it was almost never a good idea. Countercasing can create very messy rounds: When you try to imagine complex alternate mechanisms to solve difficult problems in 7 minutes, it’s likely that your solution will have serious holes. Often disputes over what your countercase actually is, or whether it even counts as a countercase, can derail the round. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t countercase; instead, it is reminder to be thoughtful when choosing to do so. This article will outline some of the basic rules of countercasing – what counts as a countercase, when to do it, and how to structure your countercase.
1. Basic Countercasing Rules
Simply stating that there are other ways to help society solve the problems the government describes does not mean that you have countercased. The government’s case and your countercase must be mutually exclusive, otherwise you are just offering another nice thing people could do to make the world better. In rounds, if people accuse you of doing a “gov + cookie” they are accusing you of running a counter plan that is not mutually exclusive. Ask yourself: is it possible to do both the government plan and my plan at the same time? If so, does it make any sense at all to do them at the same time? If the government team can prove that they can enact your case in their world – even if they don’t agree that your case is a good idea, they can steal all your arguments and easily win the round. The most evident example of mutually exclusivity is when two cases literally cannot happen in the same world. For instance, if government says “this house would kill Cecil the lion,” it is clearly acceptable to countercase “this house would capture and attempt to domesticate Cecil.” You cannot simultaneously do both. Alternately, your countercase could render the government case nonsensical/impossible. For instance, if the government proposes a moderate weakening of financial regulations, and the opposition proposes getting rid of all government, enacting the opposition case makes any need for the government case obsolete.
There is also a fuzzy middle ground when it might be unclear whether or not a countercase is acceptable. If government proposes a case that requires spending a significant amount of money, and opposition proposes using the same amount of money in a different way, it can be unclear whether the government can just argue that they will fund both projects. As an opposition team you need to prove that either A. there is no way the actor in the round can get enough money to do both, B. there is not enough political will to enact both, or C. your case so entirely renders their case unnecessary/ineffective that it makes no sense to do both. If you are running countercases that focus on how to use limited resources – money, troops, political will, etc. – you need to prove that the resources are actually limited.
Why run a countercase when you could just include alternatives as arguments in your case? Because if you countercase you get greater power to assume that your plan will happen. This is called “fiat power.” You have the ability to fiat that your case will be enacted as long as it is possible in the world government has established. If the government says, “Yale should give its debate team’s budget to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign,” opp can countercase, “instead, allow the debate team to keep their budget, but force them to volunteer for the campaign as a condition of keeping their budget.” Because of fiat, the judge is forced to assume that Yale’s administration can and will do that. Of course, opposition cannot fiat things that are not possible in a reasonable interpretation of the government world. For instance, they cannot propose hiring wizards to magic Donald Trump to the presidency.
However, you might say “well, we recognize that Donald Trump’s campaign could use some extra cash, so we’re gonna ask fraternities to give him their money.” Many teams will argue that this is not an acceptable countercase, because you could take money from both the fraternities and the debate team to make Donald Trump even happier. If they win this point, you lose the power to fiat that your case will happen. This means that you must prove not only that your plan is a good idea, but that it is likely to happen in the status quo.
2. When should you countercase?
As a general rule, I would recommend avoiding countercases in your first few months of debate. Many novices use countercasing as a crutch, to avoid having to come up with real or creative responses to a strong case. Choosing to run a countercase often means dodging the valuable discussions the government team wants to start. For example, if someone proposes a broad and important case like “legalize all drugs,” and you countercase “legalize all drugs except obscure forms of snake venom,” you probably just ruined that round.
Most debaters agree that countercasing is a good tool to use when the government fails to present a sufficiently interesting or fair debate. The best example of this is when the government’s case is tight (too self-evidently true to debate), or when it focuses on a very narrow topic that requires too much technical knowledge to debate effectively. There are mechanisms to deal with these situations (like tight calls), but they can lead to less interesting rounds. For example, the “this house would legalize gay marriage” is considered tight on APDA, but teams often prefer to countercase by advocating for complete abolition of the state-sanctioned institution of marriage.
3. Building a good countercase
Important steps to remember
- Outline the important details of your countercase – you need to describe it clearly, especially if it is a complex mechanism. Don’t countercase unless you have a good sense of how your countercase will work. If the details of your case are murky, the round will be derailed by arguments about what your countercase actually is.
- Tell everyone you are countercasing at the very beginning of your speech. Once you have proposed your countercase, in as much detail as you think is reasonable, you should stop the timer and allow the other team to ask questions about your countercase. This is not required, but if your judge will allow it, it’s just a decent thing to do.
- Optional: explain why your case is mutually exclusive, and what your countercase adds to the round. When you countercase, you imply that there is something wrong with the round the government has presented. Good countercasers often take a few seconds to explain their thinking.
Different Types of Countercases
There are lots of different ways to countercases, but here are some of the big questions you might want to ask to come up with ideas:
- Is there a different and mutually exclusive mechanism that I can use to achieve government’s goal? If so, turn it into a countercase. For example, if the government proposes a carbon tax to reduce CO2 emissions, you might want to propose a different mechanism like cap and trade. If you think the government is trying to solve a real problem, but isn’t doing it very well, this is often a good idea.
- Are there parts of the government case I like and want to keep? If so, you can propose keeping portions of their case while getting rid of the bad parts. It is worth noting that this is a strategy that can lead to less interesting debate rounds.
- What could I do that would make their entire case nonsensical? If you want to avoid debating a narrow policy change, and prefer to discuss the sweeping implications of getting rid of marriage, government, or all of humanity, you might want to propose a countercase like this. Be careful though, because you don’t get infinite fiat power to declare that your case will happen.
- What other change might they preclude by approaching this problem in this way? Is there a significantly better solution that couldn’t possibly happen if you do what they say you should do?
- Don’t ask: do I have a case that might be mutually exclusive with this case? Usually it’s not a good idea to try to squeeze a case you usually run into the round.
The way you allocate the rest of your time will probably vary widely depending on the type of countercase you bring. Figure out what the main points of contention are, then ignore any arguments the government team made that you agree with. If you are agreeing with parts of their case or principled claims they have made, you can even discuss why those arguments are strong and use them to build your countercase. If your case has rendered most of the PMC arguments irrelevant, tell the judge why you are ignoring those arguments and move on.
As a general rule, I never countercase if I think it will create a round that is less fair or less interesting. At its best, debating forces us to discuss critical topics, to grow intellectually, and to challenge ourselves. Sometimes countercases sacrifice these values for an easier victory. Before you countercase, think very seriously about this. If your countercase focuses on such a small detail that it renders the entire government case irrelevant, you have thrown out all the arguments they made in their 7 minute constructive speech. This gives you an enormous time advantage, but might make a meaningful, engaging round impossible.
If your countercase avoids interesting topics for an easy win, don’t make it. In high level rounds, countercases can add richness and unpredictability, but these rounds are few and far between. As with many decisions in debate, deciding when to countercase requires you to find your own balance between learning from the activity and pursuing competitive success.