The anti-Washington: College group offers a model for debating politely
'Transpartisan' debates, sponsored by groups like the BridgeND club at Notre Dame, broaden and deepen student understanding of complex issues – and help young adults become more willing to jump into the messy but necessary work of political engagement.
| South Bend, Ind.
At the start of his freshman year, Rogé Karma finished up an evening hockey practice and joined the throng at the University of Notre Dame student activities fair, where groups were passing out information on everything from the Juggling Club to the Smart Woman Securities investment group.
He was looking for the College Republicans and College Democrats. He found the GOP denizens first. Rogé, who was apolitical at the time, asked if the group held discussions and debates because he wanted to learn more about pressing issues. “The guy actually laughed,” Rogé says.
Disappointed, he wended his way through the maze to the Democrats’ table. The young woman there told him they sometimes talked about issues in the news, but primarily they campaigned for candidates and causes. How could he campaign, he thought, when he didn’t even know where he stood?
Rogé felt “politically homeless.”
Just then, something caught his eye at a nearby table: side-by-side pictures of Presidents Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy. He had stumbled across a nascent College Moderates group, which drew him in with plans to hold a discussion on reforming student-loan programs. But Rogé and his like-minded friends soon realized that attracting only middle-of-the-roaders wasn’t addressing the real need, either: a place where people who have fundamental disagreements can actually talk without berating each other or threatening bodily harm.
So they created one.
Meet the bridge-builders – the young adults on college campuses trying to shape a culture that better reflects values they see as essential to their education and to American democracy. Their mission goes beyond national debates about free speech and civility. It’s about “responsible discourse,” they say – embodying respect, honesty, and a willingness to really hear one another.
By bringing people together to share viewpoints that don’t necessarily fit neatly into left and right talking points, they’re finding that students broaden and deepen their understanding of complex issues – and become more willing to jump into the messy but necessary work of political engagement.
Their partisan and activist counterparts grab more headlines through colorful protests and provocative tweets about “fascists” or “snowflakes.” But these earnest champions of less shouting and more civility believe they can help keep the country from plunging further into divisiveness. To the extent that colleges are forerunners of social change, members of this new “transpartisanship” movement could one day help elevate American society – and perhaps become part of a less pugnacious political class themselves.
By Rogé’s second semester, the moderates had refashioned and rebranded themselves to become BridgeND. The California kid who came to college obsessed with sports was increasingly developing a passion for political science. He stepped into a leadership role.
The club’s first big event was The Melting Pot, a panel discussion among student leaders of the Republicans, Democrats, environmental and women’s organizations, and a Right to Life group. It drew a standing-room-only crowd in the student center ballroom, on a campus where big gatherings are usually reserved for sports activities (the giant mural on the outside of the library, of Jesus with his outstretched arms pointing upward, is visible from the stadium and has been dubbed “Touchdown Jesus”).
Many of the roughly 250 students arrived expecting to be entertained by a fiery left-right debate, Rogé says, but they came away with perspectives they had never considered. The environmentalist talked about climate change’s impact on migration patterns. The right-to-life student talked about the Catholic perspective on human dignity.
“That’s the moment we truly realized, this new model is what’s going to work,” says Rogé, now a senior, sitting at a table in the bustling student center, home to everything from a barbershop to a Smashburger.
Membership grew, and the following year, Rogé connected with Courtlyn Carpenter, who was trying a similar experiment – with the help of trained moderators – at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Together they and two other students founded BridgeUSA. Chapters are now operating on six other campuses, including Arizona State, the University of Rhode Island, and the University of California at Berkeley. Another 10 are in development. Dialogue clubs, which have a similar mission, have also taken root on a number of campuses.
The new civil-discourse movement is emerging as freshmen arrive at colleges more politically polarized than any time in the past half century. Surveys show that many people are not willing to do much more than “tolerate” the other side. And a significant portion of college students favor restricting speech that’s deemed hurtful or offensive. A minority even say it’s acceptable to use violence to prevent the expression of such views, according to a recent poll by the Brookings Institution.
Yet a significant number of moderates exist on American campuses, too. In a 2016 national survey, UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute found that 31 percent of college students are liberal, 4 percent are far left, 20 percent are conservative, and 2 percent are far right.
But that still leaves 42 percent saying their political orientation is somewhere in the middle. (At Notre Dame, a 2015 informal survey found a split of about 37 percent each for left and right, with 25 percent independent.)
Around the country, the right vs. left battle is galvanizing some students, while alienating others. Many are dissatisfied with the oversimplified narrative pitting free speech against efforts to make campuses welcoming and safe for historically marginalized groups.
The question shouldn’t be “freedom of speech vs. safe spaces … but how do we create the context for people to engage each other [who have differences]?” says John Sarrouf, who trains college staff and students on constructive dialogue as a director at Essential Partners in Cambridge, Mass. “The purpose of freedom of speech isn’t to just say whatever you want…. It’s to have your idea heard and considered.”
But many college students see a need for more empathy and inquisitiveness. Half of them said Americans do not do a good job of seeking out and listening to different views, the Knight Foundation and the Newseum Institute reported last year.
Bridge’s mission is “radical” and “very brave,” says John Duffy, an English professor at Notre Dame and the club’s faculty adviser. “It’s risky to be the messengers – to say ‘Let’s talk,’ rather than, ‘This is the right way and we’re going to advocate.’ ”
It’s “Political Speed Dating” night, several weeks into the fall semester. Students wearing everything from T-shirts and hoodies to casual business attire cluster around 10 tables in the dark paneled Oak Room of the gothic South Dining Hall.
Small black-and-white photos of past and current presidents of Notre Dame decorate one wall. Rogé circulates around the room, chatting with newcomers about their interests and hugging friends as they saunter in.
BridgeND president Christian McGrew kicks things off with a quick rundown of four key principles that should guide discussion at the event: respect, open-mindedness, civility, and courage. After airing views on each topic, he explains, two people from each table will move on to the next. (Exchanging phone numbers is optional, he jokes.)
Topics range from the benign (a debate over the best dorm on campus) to the sensitive (whether tax money should be used to pay for birth control). Next up on the list: “Do you agree with Donald Trump’s statement on Charlottesville?” Christian calls out.
“Which one?” someone asks cheekily. The “many sides” one, he says, in which the president neglected to attribute violence specifically to white supremacist demonstrators.
At one table, newcomer Zele Iyayi says, “I wouldn’t mind if [Trump] said, ‘Antifa is bad,’ but he wouldn’t even say, ‘White supremacy is bad.’ ”
Her three table-mates nod, but they each add their own spin. “As a leader of the free world, now it is time that the US president must … use the humanitarian approach – that one human cannot bash another human,” says Noble Patidar, also new to BridgeND.
Zele interjects that the phrase “free world” bothers her, because it suggests that all other countries are less free.
Audrey Gyolai, a BridgeND member from nearby St. Mary’s College, pushes back on that. “There is some really not great government going on in the Middle East now,” she says.
“Oooh. You just, like, pushed a button,” Zele says, laughing. “That triggers so many monologues in my head.”
But it’s “speed dating,” so the participants quickly move on.
The exchanges among the students can bring shifts of opinion and flashes of insight. Rogé recalls being visibly moved at a previous political speed-dating event when two students shared personal stories about what led them to opposite stances on abortion, a particularly challenging topic at this Catholic university.
Rogé himself seems well-suited to be a crusader for honest but civil exchanges on today’s college campuses. He exudes a boy-next-door charm. His hair is tightly cropped on the sides and transitions to a thick, wavy shock on top his head. He is quick to flash a grin, and, on this day, is wearing khakis and a gray T-shirt with a Notre Dame logo.
In some ways, he was almost bred to be a bridge-builder. He grew up, as he puts it, as an “in betweener.” He was less than a year old when his parents decided to have another child, and by the time he was 1-1/2, he was big brother to – surprise! – quadruplet boys, which over the years would test his mediating skills at the dinner table.
“My whole life I’ve been an arbiter between different viewpoints,” he says.
Rogé recalls coming home from college once and finding his brothers deadlocked with their parents over whether they should forgo college in pursuit of playing professional hockey. He became the neutral party in the “negotiations,” he says, helping his parents understand why his brothers didn’t want to give up their dream, while helping his brothers understand their parents’ view that college was essential to their success. Finally, they arrived at a compromise: a gap year for playing hockey and applying to colleges. At the end of that year, all four decided on college.
Rogé played hockey himself, as well as lacrosse, and other sports. He says he did so partly because he enjoyed the way team sports brought people together.
Many other members of BridgeND formed a probing mindset in their early years, too. Christian says he learned a lot by challenging his father’s conservative views at family dinners. Several grew up with parents who had to negotiate sharply different political viewpoints in their marriage.
Many club members have become devoted to BridgeND in part because it lets them do what they feel they can’t in classrooms or in social conversations on campus: have an exchange of ideas without getting ridiculed or shouted down. In fact, students often avoid discussions altogether that could become contentious. The academic culture is very achievement oriented, and many students see college as an expensive and direct line to a job and financial stability – with little room left for political or philosophical debate.
Armani “Niko” Porter’s pre-med classes were mostly science lectures and labs. But BridgeND “just lit this fire that I did not know was there,” he says. “Last year I had class on Tuesdays from 9:30 to 6:30 with no breaks … and the best part of my day was my 7 o’clock Bridge meeting.”
His newfound love for intellectual wrestling led him to double major in neuroscience and theology, and he now hopes to pursue a PhD, something he couldn’t have imagined as a kid growing up in Louisiana with no role models in academia.
Rogé, raised in a low-income family, came to Notre Dame with an academic scholarship, expecting to study business and finance. But he soon switched his major to political science. “How can I be sitting here … wanting to go to Wall Street,” he asked himself, “when there are so many issues that we need to be solving?”
None of this means BridgeND hasn’t faced some serious tests. One of its outspoken Republicans, Mimi Teixeira, penned an op-ed in the student newspaper her sophomore year, positing that all the focus on income inequality was a distraction from actually solving poverty. The editors titled it, provocatively, “Is Income inequality that bad?”
The responses came in fast and furious – and Mimi faced some personal attacks online, much of it based on her privilege as a well-off white woman from Hingham, Mass.
BridgeND seized the opportunity. It brought people together for a well-attended discussion about income inequality, featuring Mimi and some students who had written critical op-eds.
“A lot of the evidence she presented wasn’t very sound,” says Natasha Reifenberg, a philosophy major who appeared on the panel. The audience asked good questions, and Natasha appreciated the opportunity to put forth her arguments. But rather than join Bridge, she has another way of fostering empathy and understanding on campus – through a dramatic monologue group that tells the anonymous stories of marginalized students who may be hesitant to share their experiences publicly.
Mimi, for her part, says she saw attitudes soften because of the face-to-face discussion on income inequality. “When the people realized the liberals [on the panel] were respectful of my arguments, they were more open,” she says. “People who know me know I’m not just a country club person.”
It also helped that her roommate and close friend, Geralyn Smith, an African-American Democrat from New Orleans, could serve as her “character witness.”
Geralyn says it was challenging to “defend the fact that [Mimi] is an authority in her own right, but also defend my own beliefs where I didn’t agree with her.” But in the club, and in her friendship with Mimi, “it’s more about the exchange than the views themselves,” she says. “It’s fun.”
The club also weathered an appearance last spring by Charles Murray, a libertarian political scientist who has espoused controversial views on race and welfare, not long after he had faced disruptive protests at Middlebury College in Vermont. BridgeND decided not to formally participate, but Mimi, president at the time, introduced Mr. Murray, who had been invited by a constitutional studies professor.
Students organized a protest outside the building where Murray spoke. Geralyn had friends in both places, and sat the whole thing out.
“I was vehemently against going to hear him speak on my campus,” she says, but if a professor “felt it was of value … then who am I to say that he shouldn’t?”
For Niko, BridgeND has made a huge difference in the kinds of conversations taking place, because it’s a place where “everyone is expected to defend their views with facts.”
“We have everybody from anarcho-capitalists to communists, all in one room,” he says.
Niko often points out the racial subtexts of political debates at club meetings. But he’s used to doing that as a Louisianan who is part black, part native American, and who grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood. On this stately campus with its iconic gold dome, just over 4 percent of students are black, and another 5 percent are multiracial. Some white students grew up in towns where they didn’t know any racial minorities.
“It can be awkward,” he says. “But there’s no intellectual growth without that discomfort.”
One question is how far the civil-discourse movement can actually go on college campuses. University quads have long been cauldrons of spirited protest – a result, in part, of young adults just starting to formulate their own political views. Student activists have always experienced pushback from establishment forces as well.
But today, there’s an overarching debate about the political leanings of students themselves – and their professors. Some young people are eager to embrace political labels, but others shun having tags pinned on them if they share an opinion. One person’s free speech is another’s hate speech.
Bridge chapters are working to carve out a space where there’s enough trust to lift such fears. At Notre Dame, the club’s severest test came at the same time one confronted the nation – with Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency. BridgeND’s weekly meeting, open to any interested student, happened to fall on the night after the 2016 election.
“Everyone was on edge,” says Christian, a board member at that time.
Liam Dalton, one of the liberal members, faced off with a student who showed up wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. The volume dialed up quickly, and the rest of the room fell quiet.
“I couldn’t even understand where the Trump voters were coming from … and I’m supposed to be a leader of this club,” Christian recalls.
“It got pretty intense… but by the end of it [we were] shaking hands,” Liam says. “You walk away with a slightly more enlightened view of who else exists besides yourself in this country. I far prefer those discussions to just another discussion I could have with another liberal.”
For Rogé, the immediate post-election atmosphere “created an existential crisis,” he says. He asked himself, “Everything we’ve done for these last couple years, is it worth it anymore? Do I even believe in what Bridge is?”
After several weeks, Rogé and the group’s leaders settled on an emphatic yes. “This isn’t indicative that Bridge doesn’t work,” he realized. “This is exactly why we need it” – to counter the “ideological echo chambers that create this vitriolic discourse in our country.”
Throughout his college years, including a stint this summer as an intern at the American embassy in Morocco, he has leaned conservative and liberal at different times. But he truly considers himself independent.
The more he learns, the more he realizes how complex policy issues can be, and the more he values “intellectual humility,” he says. Last semester, Rogé studied in Jerusalem, which only magnified for him the necessity for respectful dialogue.
“With Israelis and Palestinians … you see there’s a wall that literally separates them,” he says. “Is this what our country could look like if we don’t have a way to understand one another?”
His dream after finishing college next spring is to work full time with BridgeUSA. He envisions, among other things, setting up a domestic version of study abroad, where students can immerse themselves in an environment that’s ideologically different from their home or campus.
If clubs can send out more graduates as “Bridge ambassadors [who] understand how to have discussions with people who disagree with them,” Rogé says, “I think our world will look like a very different place.”