Digging Into The Debate Theory Archives: Cheshier on Effects Topicality

Digging Into The Debate Theory Archives is a series highlighting “old” debate theory articles that are particularly thought-provoking, influential, or illuminating and that active debate students would benefit from reading.

In this installment of the series, I am sharing David Cheshier’s 1999 Rostrum article about effects topicality. Cheshier’s monthly columns in Rostrum were an excellent resource for debaters in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and they addressed many of the most important theoretical controversies of the era. While some columns feel a bit dated in 2021, many are as relevant as ever. This one is a good example — especially for students preparing to debate the 2021-2022 water resources protection topic.

Cheshier’s discussion of effects topicality was spurred by the wording of the 1999-2000 topic. It was crafted using a wording style that arguably “mandated” effects topicality, or topicality “by effect” rather than “by mandate.” Like several topics from that era, it required the affirmative to establish a policy to accomplish a goal. Topics that used this construction included:

  • 1996-1997 — Resolved: That the federal government should establish a program to substantially reduce juvenile crime in the United States.
  • 1997-1998 — Resolved: That the federal government should establish a policy to substantially increase renewable energy use in the United States.
  • 1999-2000 — Resolved: That the federal government should establish an education policy to significantly increase academic achievement in secondary schools in the United States.

In a later era, these resolutions would have been crafted differently. For example:

  • Resolved: That the federal government should substantially reduce juvenile crime in the United States.
  • Resolved: That the federal government should substantially increase renewable energy use in the United States.
  • Resolved: That the federal government should significantly increase academic achievement in secondary schools in the United States.

The crucial difference is whether the resolution’s wording requires the affirmative to “mandate” a particular outcome or whether it only requires the establishment of a policy or program for the purpose of achieving that outcome.

The problem with topic wordings that “mandate” particular outcomes is that they sometimes make little sense in a given policy context. Often, no policy is “guaranteed” to achieve a particular result. This can lead to controversies about “mixing burdens:” if the negative proves (with case arguments and/or disadvantages) that the plan will not achieve its intended outcome, is the plan non-topical? That seems to conflate topicality with solvency, something that feels intuitively wrong to many observers.

In an attempt to “fix” or avoid the “mixing burdens” problem, these late-1990s resolutions used an alternate construction. Instead of requiring the affirmative to mandate a particular outcome, they required the affirmative to mandate a type of policy or program “to” achieve a stated outcome. While this did resolve some of the aforementioned problems, it also created new controversies. That’s what Cheshier addresses in this article. In it, he describes four possible “tests” for determining effects topicality:

  1. Does the plan announce itself as a policy to achieve the resolution’s stated goal?
  2. Does the case claim only advantages based on achieving the resolution’s stated goal?
  3. Does someone else (in the topic literature) say this is a plan to achieve the resolution’s stated goal?
  4. The “vacuum test” — essentially, could the plan exist and make sense in a world without the resolution’s stated goal?

The vacuum test was Cheshier’s creation; it was referred to as the “Cheshier test” in many debates during that era. As Cheshier describes in his article, it was most useful on the previous year’s topic. In 1998-1999, students debated Resolved: That the United States should substantially change its foreign policy toward Russia. The vacuum test was often used to distinguish between plans that broadly (or narrowly) changed U.S. foreign policy in ways that might have affected Russia from plans that changed U.S. foreign policy toward Russia. To do that, the test asked the judge to imagine that Russia did not exist. If the plan still “made sense” in this imagined world, it was not topical. If the plan “only made sense” if Russia existed, then it was topical.

Even if the vacuum test “worked” for the Russia topic (and this was not universally accepted), it was more difficult to apply it to other resolutions. Instead of establishing a clear brightline, the vacuum test often introduced even more complicated controversies about what should and shouldn’t be topical. Anyone that debated or judged in this era will remember many vapid debates about “how many steps” the plan is allowed to take; 2NCs annoyingly counted “steps in the plan” the way rival NBA fans count seconds before a Giannis Antetokounmpo free throw: “One, Congress passes the plan; Two, the president signs the plan; Three, agencies enforce the plan. Four, …”. In the article, Cheshier acknowledges some of these drawbacks.

Looking ahead to the 2021-2022 high school topic, effects topicality will again be an important issue for students to learn and practice. Unlike the education topic that Cheshier discussed, the water resources protection topic appears to mandate a particular “outcome” or “result”: topical plans must “increase its protection of water resources in the United States.” Consider the two ways this resolution could have been crafted:

  • 2021-2022 (Actual Topic Wording) — Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its protection of water resources in the United States.
  • 2021-2022 (Alternate Topic Wording) — Resolved: The United States federal government should establish a policy to substantially increase protection of water resources in the United States.

(In the alternate construction, “policy” might have been modified by something more specific: a regulatory policy, a comprehensive policy, an environmental policy, etc. That might have further limited the scope of topical plans.)

The difference between these two wordings is important for debating effects topicality. With the former/actual resolution, topical affirmatives must advocate U.S. federal government action to substantially increase its protection of water resources. With the alternate resolution, topical affirmative must only advocate U.S. federal government action which has as its goal or intended outcome to substantially increase protection of water resources writ large. The inclusion of the phrase “its protection of” in the actual resolution seems to explicitly exclude federal government actions that encourage other actors to protect water resources, or which have the goal of achieving protection of water resources in the abstract, but which do not themselves mandate it.

Of course, this all hinges on the definition of “protection.” If protection is defined as an outcome — as a condition describing the quality or quantity of water resources, or a synonym for “in good shape” — then the resolution invites effects topicality. Under that interpretation of protection, U.S. federal government policies that improve water quality (or perhaps just intend to improve water quality) are topical “by effect:” they result in water resources being in better shape.

If protection is instead conceived as a type of policy — a regulation shielding the water resource from harm or injury — then the resolution seems to require that affirmatives defend a direct, mandatory increase in U.S. federal regulations. Under this interpretation, protection of a water resource is a policy that is mandated; it describes the legal status of a water resource rather than its quality, quantity, or general condition. These two understandings of the topic will produce vastly different case lists.

As students prepare to debate these issues, they will benefit greatly from Dr. Cheshier’s instruction. Understanding the history of effects topicality and its relationship to different topic wordings is particularly important. I hope this post will help current students get up to speed on a theory controversy that has existed since long before they were born.

The full text of Cheshier’s article is below.


Cheshier, David M. “Effects Topicality All Over Again…” Rostrum, Volume 74, Number 2, October 1999, pp. 33-34, 41.

When a judge looks at a plan how will she know it’s a plan “to significantly increase academic achievement in secondary schools”? The question is not an easy one, mainly because the topic framers have once again preferred a grammatical construction of the resolution which seems to mandate so-called “effects” topicality. That is, by requiring the affirmative to “establish a policy to significantly increase academic achievement,” as opposed to simply requiring the affirmative to “increase academic achievement,” the committee appears to permit affirmatives the option of defending policies which would not directly increase achievement, but which only have the effect of doing so.

Such constructions have become a regular feature of the high school topics debated in the last decade, and at least two points can be made in defense of the committee’s choices. First, high school debates simply have not been plagued by effects topicality arguments when such constructions have been chosen. Despite annually strenuous conversation on the issue at the major summer programs, the circuit has been able to handle apparently problematic resolutions of this type without much difficulty. And second, we could say the topic committee has preferred a lesser evil, since forcing affirmatives to actually implement “increases in academic achievement” would impose a perhaps impossible burden on plan topicality. Arguably the only certain way to fiat an academic achievement increase would be to implement a definitional change, such as artificially adding 100 points to every student’s SAT score or watering down course requirements. Merits of such plans are difficult to locate.

And so, once again, teams will debate a topic that permits affirmatives to create policies having the effect (direct or indirect) of increasing achievement. That is what affirmatives mean when they say the resolution “mandates effects,” a common catch-phrase response to effects topicality violations. But to say the resolution requires effects is not to say that all effectually topical cases should be allowed. For example, to pick an extreme case, we know that children are unlikely to academically achieve when they are dead. Such an argument (and who can deny it?) justifies any plan that reduces infant mortality or decreases nuclear war risks. We know that poor children perform less competently on standardized exams. Does this make any pro-economic growth plan a “policy to… increase academic achievement?” But if the answer is yes, we’ve created an open-ended resolution.

Now a reasonable response is to point to the resolution’s modifier for the word “policy.” That is, the worse effects abuses might be preventable since the affirmative is only allowed to implement an “education policy.” And it is true one definition of the phrase says education policies are those which directly connect to the actual operation of school buildings. But the “education” modification does not entirely solve the problem. Many borderline topical cases involve the operation of school buildings (some run this summer included a ban on mandatory asbestos removal and requirements that school building security be improved). There are also, of course, many seemingly topical cases that have nothing to do with the daily operation of school buildings. And if one prefers policies enjoying contextual support, she will quickly find many proposals quite extraneous to our normal sense of achievement policies which are defended as educationally pertinent, since it is politically popular to defend new programs as done on behalf of “our kids’ kids.”

What we need is a test, a bright line standard, which can be held up against the plan text to determine if it is reasonably (and directly) a policy to increase achievement. It’d be great if the test were plan-based (that is, a test satisfied simply by looking to see if the plan possesses certain features), since that would get judges out of having to look at solvency evidence to determine topicality (a procedure almost everyone opposes, since it gets us into the ugly business of “mixing burdens,” a test the affirmative is usually destined to fail, since casting any doubt on solvency makes the plan only “probabilistically topical”). And it would also be good to devise a reasonable test: one providing some latitude to affirmative (after all, the topic “mandates” effects) while still ridding us of the most absurdly indirect achievement policies.

Here’s the problem:

All the potential tests suffer from major shortcomings.

Candidate 1: Does the plan announce itself as an academic achievement policy? This test has a major virtue: all a judge has to do is look at the plan and see if the magic language appears. It has a major drawback: any idiot can find a way to plant the resolution in the plan text, and given this, suddenly all plans are topical. Example: “We support establishment of the following education policy to significantly increase academic achievement: Congress will immediately ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty….” You see the problem.

Candidate 2: Does the case claim only academic achievement advantages? Here is an apparently bright line test. While not plan centered, some find it reasonable to conclude a plan is an academic achievement program when the only benefits claimed on its behalf are attainment related.

A drawback of this idea is we end up rather distorting our routinely understood conceptions of topicality by embracing case-based standards. Many problems arise from doing so, only partly revealed by these questions: (a) Imagine the negative wins a case turn to one of the academic achievement advantages. Does this make the case anti-topical? (b) Imagine the affirmative wins their original education-related advantages, but the debate finally comes down to their success at winning a Clinton turn. Does the fact that their biggest “advantage” is now extraneous to academic achievement mean they lose on topicality? (c) Do we have any justifiable basis for denying the affirmative the right to defend advantages which directly stem from topical action even if they have nothing specific to do with academic achievement goals?

Candidate 3: Does someone else say this is a plan to increase academic achievement? This test has more advocates, some of whom are willing to impose quite strict evidentiary requirements on affirmatives. In fact this may be the most popularly supported effects topicality test of all. Earlier this summer I heard Dr. Scott Deatherage (coach of the 1998 and 1999 N.D.T. Champions, from Northwestern University) defend the standard, I’m not sure how seriously, that to be topical an affirmative has to have expert evidence saying plan establishment would increase achievement test scores by a significant amount. This is truly a strict standard, since if we really knew how to increase scores significantly by enacting federal policy someone would have gotten elected President for their brilliance in thinking it up. Educational consultants get paid big money defending programs that promise even slight test score improvement — delivering on such promises is very difficult.

Now this might be a virtue of the test, not a drawback. There is a set of proposals whose proponents claim test score improvements will follow implementation, and while there aren’t many (presumably they would include proposals to shrink class size, emphasize instruction in the so-called “basics,” implement meaningful testing, require teacher certification, and other mainstream ideas), a limited case list would result. Notice also how this test gets the affirmative out of the “mixing burdens” problem: A judge may conclude (based on detailed solvency attacks) that the plan would actually suppress test scores. But this fact doesn’t make the case nontopical, so long as the affirmative has reasonable evidence from someone saying it is their idea of an “education policy” to improve achievement.

But there are real drawbacks here as well. Do we really want to straitjacket affirmatives into having to defend quantifiable federally mandated test score increases when few if any serious policy players defend such proposals, given the serious disadvantages? Even the President, who possesses a keen interest in educational improvement, does not advocate anything more likely to increase scores than putting some additional strings on Title 1 ESEA funds, most of which proposals fail the topicality test by having the federal government provide probabilistic incentives to the states to improve educational outcomes.

There are some general difficulties with the contextuality standard as well. The main terms in the resolution, especially the phrase “education policy,” do not well align with the main terms of art in the educational policy literature. And when they do (as in the case of “academic achievement”) vanishingly few authors advocate federal action as the agent of establishment. Of course, sometimes these phrases appear out of thin air, coincidentally chosen by this or that policy advocate as a way to defend his or her wacky idea for fixing schools. Does the process of linguistic happenstance really produce the best case list? It might, but only under circumstances where the topic committee is especially careful to produce topics that employ the main terminology of the relevant literatures.

Candidate 4: The “vacuum test.” Several years ago I devised what is now called by some the “vacuum test” as a topicality argument on a foreign policy topic which was also written to permit effects cases. After many years of use, and having generated a decent amount of controversy (if not outright opposition), I will readily concede its drawbacks. But in my view the test works about as well as any alternatives and in fact has some specific virtues.

When debaters defend a vacuum test, they are asking the judge to perform a sort of thought experiment relevant to the plan. To illustrate the use of the test, I want to use an example from last year’s Russia topic (for reasons I’ll provide just a bit later). As a test for determining whether a plan changed America’s foreign policy “toward Russia” or not, some defended a vacuum test that said: “Imagine there is no country called Russia in the world. In such a world, would this plan be a good idea?” If the judge concludes the plan is still desirable (or, to use a tougher test, decides the plan “makes sense in a world without Russia”), then the plan fails and is judged too indirectly topical to pass. If the plan is made incoherent or obviously enjoys no benefits in such a world, then it “passes,” and is topical.

Such a test has some considerable benefits. It creates a rather bright line — one can look at the plan and perform the thought experiment without necessarily perusing every solvency card. On last year’s topic, for instance, one could easily decide that a plan to assist in the cleanup of lake Baikal passed. After all, it would be incoherent to imagine passing a plan to clean up a lake if the country it was part of did not even exist (implying the lake wasn’t around either). The test often has the virtue of being easily explainable. And while not wholly plan-based (after all, one still has to bring some outside knowledge to bear in making one’s decision), the test certainly is plan-centered. Often the test can be defended as producing a reasonably broad case list, one that easily precludes (on this topic) the anti-war and pro-growth cases while still permitting curricular mandates, testing modifications, and even changes to such programs as the JROTC or “conflict resolution” model programs.

I introduced the test by reference to last year’s topic because this year’s wording complicates use of a “vacuum test” considerably, and in one particularly troublesome way: In devising a test for this education topic, how is it we imagine the world has been changed? Do we imagine a world without “secondary schools,” a world without “academic achievement,” or a world without “education policies”? How you answer the question produces quite divergent case lists. Perhaps the inclusion of the term “education policy” argues for a vacuum test which imagines a world without secondary schools (given the definition I cited earlier). Imposing such a test preserves many of the mainstream cases but does get rid of many others, like support for Head Start and universal school-aged breakfast programs.

There are other objections to vacuum tests: (a) One might say the test effectively kills any beneficial plan proposal, since in those cases one can often say the plan would “make sense” or be “desirable” even in a world of no schools. The school breakfast case gets to this gray area: On the one hand, school lunches are served in school buildings, which implies the plan passes the vacuum test. But on the other, giving school-aged children price-reduced meals is a wonderful idea whether there are school buildings or not, or whether academic achievement exists or not. (b) The case list which results may be as much skewed as the one produced by the more common “contextual support” effects standard. The vacuum test privileges programs which the plan explicitly runs in school buildings, even if they have nothing to do with academic achievement. For example, the plan to ban the mandated removal of asbestos passes. But a sex education mandate arguably fails (people should learn how to use condoms whether there are school buildings or not), even though that seems more obviously relevant to academic achievement than asbestos containment.

Other merits and drawbacks can be offered as with each of the topicality tests. I would simply offer these quick pieces of advice in thinking through effects topicality this year. First, think through early on how you intend to defend your own plan and attack egregiously nontopical cases given the usual reluctance of judges on the national circuit to draw the effects noose too tightly. Second, settle on a test you feel comfortable defending which meets the criteria I mentioned earlier, and develop fully your rhetoric in defense of such a test (think through, for example, what cases meet and don’t meet it). Finally, regardless of the test you choose, articulate it fully. Too often standards like the “vacuum test” are tossed out without explanation. Under such circumstances, where the affirmative answer may extend no further than three words “5—Passes vacuum test,” it’s no wonder judges are reluctant to resolve the issue in your favor.

David M. Cheshier is Assistant Professor of Communication and Director of Debate at Georgia State University. His column appears monthly in the Rostrum.

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