In September 2022, I received an email from Julia Jackman, an Arizona State University alum familiar with the BridgeUSA movement, with the subject line “Dialogue opportunity in Norway- BridgeGW.”
The email explained Julia’s role in Norway’s International Student Festival in Trondheim (ISFiT) and the Dialogue Project, a sub-project of the festival for which Julia was recruiting 20 students from a focus region—this year being the U.S.—to participate in a dialogue seminar on ISFiT’s theme of polarization, before traveling to the festival. “There’s no way she’s offering me three weeks in Norway,” I said to my mom on the phone. “And what can I learn about polarization in Norway that I can’t learn at GW?”
Four months later, despite lingering skepticism, I was on a plane with no idea what to expect out of the next three weeks. Little did I know, going to Norway would challenge everything I thought I knew about American politics.
The Dialogue Project took place in a rural cabin outside of Røros with 18 American college students from across the country and across the political spectrum. The first few days in the cabin were spent getting used to an isolated Scandinavian lifestyle–ice fishing, eating reindeer for dinner, and exploring abandoned mines in -20°F temperatures–while establishing a sense of shared values and trust that would lay the groundwork for our rigorous dialogue sessions.
Unlike the approach to political dialogue many of us had taken at home in the U.S., the Dialogue Project began by challenging us to look into ourselves and each other. Together, we chose the topics for the dialogue sessions: abortion, individual rights, gender, culture, and a variety of other topics that fell under the umbrella of polarization. I promised myself I would head into the coming week of the Dialogue Project with an open mind.
A dialogue session is neither a debate nor a conversation, rather it’s a seminar-style round-table discussion with rules enforced by a moderator. The moderator keeps a queue of those who want to speak, and speakers cannot comment directly on a previous speaker’s point or ask multiple questions in a row. All of this serves to encourage dialogue about personal experiences and vulnerabilities rather than debates about political facts. The dialogue sessions would start off with a question, such as “What is a value you have learned from your community, your culture, or your class?” From there, we unpacked our values and how they inspired our opinions.
Discussions and debates about United States politics are generally riddled with buzz words, preconceptions based on the labels assigned to us by the two-party system, and pressure to be as factually and politically correct as possible. As someone whose identities and values tend to be discarded by one party or the other, the style of political discussions most frequently had in the United States usually leaves me feeling unheard and unsatisfied. I often feel that discussions are all about which participant can silence the other with the perfect fact and that opinions are taken at face value without consideration of the participants’ regional, educational, and social circumstances. Working under the conditions, queues, and directions of the Dialogue Project alongside 17 other politically well-versed students required me to quickly develop an intense focus and self-control in order to prevent myself from falling prey to the toxicity associated with my usual political debates.
During the first few dialogue sessions, I developed counter-arguments in my head for every argument I disagreed with, trying to find clever ways around waiting in the queue or loopholes to the one-question rule so that I could disprove others’ arguments and prove the validity of my own. This changed in our “individual rights” dialogue. In watching my cabin roommates be the first two participants to truly accept the rules that we were given and tap into the roots of their opinions and beliefs, I realized that what I thought was an open mind was in fact not that at all.
Rather than combatting other participants’ points about vaccine passports and hate speech with medical statistics or First Amendment quotes, my roommates shared deeply personal experiences with terminal illness and discriminatory speech that were far more moving in that moment than any fact could have been.
Despite the heaviness of that dialogue session, I think of it as a turning point. From then on, we were able to focus on pinpointing exactly where our beliefs came from, why they were so personal to us, and how our backgrounds affected our biases. These developments made our discussions beautifully nuanced, just as our country is, and allowed our group to truly represent a microcosm of the diverse American experience.
After recounting the Dialogue Project to my loved ones, many asked me if any groundbreaking conclusions were reached. “Honestly,” I told them, “I didn’t change any of my political opinions. The consensus that was reached during our abortion dialogue, for example, was that our group would never be able to come to a consensus on abortion policy.”
However, what I gained from the project was the knowledge that consensus shouldn’t always be the goal. Instead, we should be asking ourselves how we can move forward when no consensus is reached. Yes, many could argue that I only got along with the other dialogue participants because I had to spend 10 days in a remote cabin with them; but, the way I see it, we formed deep connections out of a lack of consensus.
I used to think I was unique in my feelings of exclusion from the two-party system. While one party loudly fights for the minority communities that myself and many of my loved ones belong to, the other actively listens to those in rural areas such as much of my home state of Kentucky. In Norway, I saw for the first time just how many Americans have intricate, contradicting identities like mine. Seeing the passion for better politics that those Americans had hidden under their disdain for our government gave me some semblance of hope for our future. Existing in these identities and being so disheartened by American politics that your passion for progress becomes a passion for argument is a phenomenon that is not specific to me. Voters who don’t quite fit into a binary, two-party system are just looking for some sort of change. What is important is not that we agree on exactly what that change should be, but that we utilize our diverse opinions to make progress. The Republican Party is not a monolith, nor is the Democratic Party. Americans are diverse, driven, and capable of political change, and the key just might be dialogue.