The Evolution of Plans In Policy Debate, Part 1: The Early History

Affirmative plans have played a role in policy debate since its inception, but that role has been perennially controversial. Freeley and Steinberg’s textbook defines “plan” as “the affirmative’s method of solving the problem claimed in the justification as needs or harm. It must produce the advantages claimed by the affirmative.” While this seems straightforward, disputes about plans and their function have roiled debaters and judges for more than a century. As debate’s broader argumentation norms have changed, so too have disputes about plans.

In this series, I will attempt to summarize the historical development of plans in policy debate. My goal is to provide additional context for contemporary disputes in order to improve debaters’ and judges’ understandings of these deeply-rooted disagreements. This will hopefully improve the quality of future debates over these ongoing (and likely never-ending) disagreements. Part one covers the early history of policy debate — from the beginning of the twentieth century through the 1960s.  

From the very beginning of competitive interscholastic debate — the activity that developed into what we now call policy debate — the affirmative plan has been the subject of significant controversy. The first volume of the University Debaters’ Annual (subtitled Constructive and Rebuttal Speeches Delivered in the Intercollegiate Debates of American Colleges and Universities during the College Year 1914-1915) includes an early example of a plan from a debate between Columbia and Cornell in 1915. Debating the topic “Resolved, That in view of the present situation, the United States should take immediate steps to increase materially the Army and Navy,” Columbia advocated the following plan:

Now the Affirmative, in putting its plan for a material increase before you tonight, is not proposing haphazard figures based on its own authority. We are advancing, in general, the recommendations offered by the General Board of the Navy headed by Admiral Dewey, and those offered by the Department of War. …  Now the Affirmative proposes: first, that all the present fleet be brought up to its maximum efficiency in ammunition, men and auxiliary vessels; second, that the next Congress adopt a programme of four dreadnoughts a year; third, that it authorize the building of 100 submarines and 20 mine-layers. In doing this, ladies and gentlemen, we wish to impress upon you that we are merely seeking to place our Navy back again in its former position of strength. As regards the Army, we propose: first, that all our present forces be rendered completely efficient in respect to guns, ammunition and equipment; second, that our regular standing Army be increased to 200,000 men. There is our program, ladies and gentlemen. The highest naval and military authorities in the country say that it is adequate.

This was representative of how plans were conceptualized in policy debate’s early history. Because the affirmative was tasked with defending the resolution as a whole, the plan was merely an explanation of how the resolution could, would, or should be adopted. In this example, Columbia’s plan explained what immediate steps the U.S. should take to materially increase the Army and Navy. This was typically part of the second affirmative constructive. After the first affirmative constructive outlined the problems with the status quo that justified the need for the resolution, the second affirmative debater would explain how the resolution solves those problems.

In the Columbia vs. Cornell example, the affirmative’s plan clarified what the “material increase” in the Army and Navy would entail. Its specific recommendations were derived from what we would now call its “solvency advocate,” or the expert evidence that supports its proposed policy changes.

While the affirmative advocated their plan, the resolution remained the central focus of the debate; the plan was simply a further clarification of the manner in which the resolution would be adopted. This resolution-focused style of debate is similar to modern Public Forum Debate, where plans are explicitly prohibited by National Speech and Debate Association Rules:

In Public Forum Debate, the Association defines a plan or counterplan as a formalized, comprehensive proposal for implementation. Neither the pro or con side is permitted to offer a plan or counterplan; rather, they should offer reasoning to support a position of advocacy. Debaters may offer generalized, practical solutions.

But in the same way that contemporary Public Forum debaters and judges struggle to clearly distinguish between legitimate explanations of how the resolution would be adopted and illegitimate “formalized, comprehensive” plans, debaters in the early twentieth century often clashed over the legitimacy and acceptability of plans. In the Columbia vs. Cornell debate, for example, Cornell responded to Columbia’s plan by disputing whether it was sufficiently detailed to meet the affirmative’s burden of proof. In a rebuttal, they argued:

The case of the Affirmative is weak, furthermore, in the very fundamentals. They failed to define at the outset what they meant by “the present situation”; they were content to postpone this very necessary understanding until the second speech in the rebuttal. They have not yet come forth with a definite plan which they would consider a material increase, and it is now too late for them to do so. One of two things is true: if they have an idea of what they consider a material increase, they are hedging the issue and avoiding a responsibility by not presenting [end page 61] that plan; if they have no such idea, they do not know what they are talking about. However, their attitude in these matters is entirely consistent with the gracefulness with which they have attempted to avoid the expression of an opinion on whether or not they expect war with England.

This gripe should sound familiar to contemporary debaters and judges. The issues it raises remain unsettled more than 100 years later: How much detail must the affirmative’s plan include? What is the relationship between the plan and the resolution? To what extent may the affirmative clarify the intent of their plan?

The basic function of the plan in the Columbia/Cornell debate, although contested, remained the norm into the second half of the twentieth century. High school and college policy debate resolutions were crafted similarly to current Public Forum resolutions; they were relatively specific, and the affirmative was expected to affirm the resolution as a whole. Many did not use the United States federal government as the agent; when they did, they often called for a specific policy change. For example:

  • Resolved: That Congress should be empowered to override by two-thirds vote. decisions of the supreme court which declare acts of Congress unconstitutional. (NDT, 1924-1925)
  • Resolved: That a federal department of education should be created with a secretary in the president’s cabinet. (High School, 1927-1928)
  • Resolved: That the National Labor Relations Board should be empowered to enforce arbitration of all industrial disputes. (NDT, 1937-1938)
  • Resolved: That the United States should establish an alliance with Great Britain. (High School, 1939-1940)
  • Resolved: That the federal government should provide a system of complete medical care available to all citizens at public expense. (High School, 1946-1947)
  • Resolved: That the United States should nationalize the basic nonagricultural industries. (NDT, 1949-1950)
  • Resolved: That the President of the United States should be elected by the direct vote of the people. (High School, 1953-1954)
  • Resolved: That the United States should extend diplomatic recognition to the communist government of China. (NDT, 1954-1955)
  • Resolved: That the United States should adopt a program of compulsory health insurance for all citizens. (NDT, 1960-1961)
  • Resolved: That the federal government should establish a national program of public work for the unemployed. (NDT 1964-1965)
  • Resolved: That Congress should establish uniform regulations to control criminal investigation procedures. (High School, 1967-1968)

When affirming these resolutions, the affirmative had some room to explain the details of how the new policy could or should be implemented, but they did not limit their advocacy to a “subset” of the resolution. The plan fulfilled a supporting role: it helped the affirmative make their case for the desirability of the resolution, but it was not itself the central focus of the debate. The affirmative affirmed the resolution, not the plan.

During this era, the negative was expected to thoroughly debate the case. Arguments disputing the need for the resolution and those challenging its workability and solvency were capable of winning debates even without “offense,” but negatives also presented disadvantages and (more often than one might think) counterplans. Still, the affirmative’s primary focus as they prepared for debates was to defend their case. This shaped how plans were formulated: when the affirmative was confronted with a negative argument about workability or feasibility, they sometimes responded by adding additional details to their plan. Other times, they pushed back against the negative’s focus on implementation details and encouraged the judge to adopt a more “big picture” perspective.

In many ways, the back and forth between the negative’s demands for greater affirmative plan specificity and the affirmative’s use of the plan to dodge negative arguments mirrors contemporary controversies. In the same way that early 2020s plans that simply restate the general resolutional wording (or a subset of the resolutional wording) draw the ire of negatives who demand additional clarification, many plans in the first half of the twentieth century were criticized for lacking sufficient detail. But at the same time, negatives also criticized affirmative plans that specified “too much,” either explicitly or implicitly — especially when that specification was designed to dodge negative arguments.

The best summary of this era of plan controversies was provided in 1953 by Elton Abernathy, a Professor of Speech at Southwest Texas State College. He criticized both a negative team that complains about vagueness and demands additional plan specification and an affirmative team that “spends a major segment of time showing exactly how the proposed change would be set up and operated.” He concluded that “entirely too much attention is usually paid to plan by both affirmative and negative.” Abernathy’s article is worth reading in its entirety; it is included below.

The push and pull about the level of detail in plans has continued into the present, but this early era of the affirmative plan ended in the late 1960s. By the 1970s, plans had become the central focus of debates. I will explain this transition in the next part of this series.

Abernathy, Elton. “The Second Affirmative Speech,” Southern Journal of Communication, Volume 19, Number 1, 1953, pp. 53-56.

By the very nature of the subject and the potentially interested audience, one who dares to speak about debate is becoming himself liable for a debate. Particularly is this true when the topic concerns the duties of the affirmative team. All debaters are ready at the drop of a time card to challenge any doubt regarding the “obligations of the affirmative.” Yet that is precisely what I am about to do.

I have listened to hundreds of debates in which it was charged that one side had not fulfilled its obligations. Most often it is a negative speaker who is vigorously maintaining that his opponents have not “proved there is a need for government ownership” or that no “workable plan” has been presented. I am particularly distressed by the latter charge because it is often accompanied by a demand that the affirmative go into great details of exactly how a mighty political, social, or economic structure will be built, maintained, and operated, and what the certain results will be. Since I am only a fallible human who cannot even predict what will happen next week with any degree of accuracy, I am further annoyed when the obliging affirmative speaker answers with the minutea [sic] of a “plan” he and his partner have “cooked up.” “Our plan,” he coldly informs us, “is to buy these companies with government bonds, maturing in 9 ½ years, with 6% interest. They will be run by a board in each state under twelve regional boards, composed of seven directors each and all under one bureau in Washington whose directors will be appointed by the President with the consent of the Senate and the advice of the several state governors.” So on it goes in greater detail ad nauseum, and ends with the sweeping demand that the “Negative debate us on our plan.”

The whole problem is made more complicated by an occasional affirmative team which admits having no “plan” and wonders aloud why one is necessary. Then the debate leaves the original question entirely and becomes a harangue over the “obligations of the affirmative.” [end page 53] I have examined virtually all of the authoritative textbooks on debate and find that this problem has been almost completely ignored. Therefore, as good debaters would say, “the issue remains” as follows: when debating a question of policy, assuming that the first affirmative has pointed to evils in our present system, and has stated and defined the proposal (proposition) at hand, what remains for the second affirmative speaker to do?

It seems to me that his first logical step is to attempt to establish probability that the proposed change will correct present evils. (I use the word “probability” advisedly, because I do not believe it can ever be “proved” that any given social, economic, or political proposal will correct any given problem.) How, then, is this probability to be established? Certainly not by dreaming up and proposing an intricate, tricky “plan.” I have heard some that would be laughed out of any court of law or legislative hall in the land. Rather it would seem that the affirmative should refer again to the debate proposition. If it calls for fair employment legislation, then does it seem likely that such legislation, as usually conceived, would solve the problems already discussed? A dozen examples of FEPC in operation, or proposed bills, are available. The finest legal brains have been employed in drafting the bills and laws. Why not suppose that the framers of the current debate topic meant that sort of legislation? Yet, at the same time, why must any one particular bill be “the plan?” Certainly the whole theory of FEPC, any FEPC, is debatable enough, and requires so much proving that wasting half of a main speech giving detailed operational procedure is blundering.

Interscholastic or intercollegiate debate is supposed to have its counterpart in ordinary affairs of democratic government. Yet those who argued strenuously for the use of Formosan troops in Korea never wasted time explaining that these Chinese would go in destroyers rather than cruisers, use bi-lingual liaison secretaries, and be organized into regimental combat teams, under two major and three brigadier generals.

Not to belabor the point further, I am convinced that the best way to establish probability that the change would alleviate the evils is to discuss its broad outlines and past experience with similar legislation, rather than devoting the debate to an affirmative “plan” that has been tinkered up by student debaters or their coach.

Normally the affirmative has another obligation. It is a rare proposal that has not been called socialistic or somehow subversive [end page 54] to good government. Therefore, the second affirmative speaker will need to defend his proposal as not being the producer of worse evils than it is designed to correct. This is the point at which some debaters resort to a “plan.” Yet, I observe again that it seems much more important to defend the theory, the principles, of most debatable proposals than it is to defend or attack one particular version. Three years ago I heard some debaters become so involved in the question of what to do about Jugoslavia [sic] that they ignored completely the question of whether or not we should organize a non-communist union.

I, of course, am ready to admit that some debate questions demand more of a plan than others; however, consider the disadvantages incurred by the affirmative team which spends a major segment of time showing exactly how the proposed change would be set up and operated:

1. They have less time to convince the audience that we want any version at all of the affirmative proposal.

2. Each added detail will usually lose audience support. Let us say a speaker is arguing for “Free Enterprise” before 100 people. When he first states his thesis 90 will agree with him. When he says that this involves establishing a new cabinet post, the Secretary of Free Enterprise, he loses 15 supporters. When he adds that the bureau should be divided into 5 sections he drops another 10. When he urges that an agent of this bureau be placed in each county, 15 more desert him. And when “his plan” is that all this must be done immediately, with at least 1/3 of the officials being women, another 15 refuses to go along. What started as a majority has now become a minority.

3. Almost every added detail can be made the butt of ridicule by one’s opponents.

4. Unless they have chosen the best possible plan they have weakened their case.

Therefore, I say that certain criteria should guide the second affirmative speaker as he ponders the problem of presenting a plan for the organization and operation of his proposal:

1. Is it necessary that I present any sort of a plan in order to establish the probability that my proposal is feasible and desirable? [end page 55]

2. If the answer is yes, then are there similar plans in successful operation to which I can point?

3. If none are in operation, then have plans been proposed by expert students of this question?

4. If I must invent a totally new organization and procedure, what constitutes the least number of details I must include?

It is my judgment that entirely too much attention is usually paid to plan by both affirmative and negative. The great social, economic, and political questions of our day can better be discussed in terms of their desirability in principle. Rarely indeed can even this be adequately explored in a single hour.

Works Cited

Abernathy, Elton. “The Second Affirmative Speech,” Southern Journal of Communication, Volume 19, Number 1, 1953, pp. 53-56.

Freeley, Austin J. and David L. Steinberg. Argumentation and Debate: Critical Thinking for Reasoned Decision Making. Twelfth Edition, Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2008.

Mabie, Edward Charles, editor. University Debaters’ Annual: Constructive and Rebuttal Speeches Delivered in the Intercollegiate Debates of American Colleges and Universities during the College Year 1914-1915. The H.W. Wilson Company, 1915.

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