By Sigurd Neubauer
Do you have political aspirations but stuck in a dead-end job?
Read how a Norwegian diplomat turned lawmaker left his job – and went without pay for 18 months – before winning a contested primary, and ultimately the election.
For men in their 40s, with a family to provide for and a career seemingly on track even if major promotions and career changes are increasingly harder to come by, many feel “stuck” in their lives. Some take up new hobbies or buy a sports car to fill the void of facing middle age.
But not Bård Ludvig Thorheim, a newly elected conservative member of the Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget), who resigned in 2019 from his comfortable – and yes – prestigious civil servant position at the Foreign Ministry where he was a political adviser to the Minister of Foreign Affairs to pursue an unlikely path to the legislature.
In Norway, the constitution bars civil servants from participating in politics, which is why Thorheim had to resign from his job.
Thorheim with wife Inger Karin to the left and their family, 2020
Thorheim, a father of four spent the next 18 months without a full-time job while scrambling to win a primary election in Norway’s remote Nordland region. “I had no money, no staff and no sponsors,” explains Thorheim in an interview with Man & Culture.
“Most people said I had no chance. I was completely unknown and hadn’t lived in my hometown of Bodo in Nordland for over 20 years.”
“Instead, I lived in the capital of Oslo, which is 716 miles (1153KM) away from Bodo,” Thorheim adds.
In an American context, this meant that Thorheim had become “a Washington insider.” But in order to ultimately win his coveted seat, the conservative lawmaker staked out an unconventional plan for his campaign.
“Most people said I had no chance. I was completely unknown and hadn’t lived in my hometown of Bodo in Nordland for over 20 years”
At age 43, the political outsider first discussed his political aspirations with his wife, whose job as a medical doctor helped sustain the family of six while Thorheim bought an RV for his grassroot campaign crisscrossing every district in one of Norway’s most rural regions so that he “could meet everyone.”
In the process, Thorheim established a one-man consulting firm but feared that he wouldn’t get any clients. “It was a huge undertaking, and a wild plan,” says Thorheim.
Thorheim had determined that the only path to victory was through a grass roots campaign. “I enjoyed having long – and uninterrupted – conversations with the many people I met,” he confesses.
He even gave out his private cell phone number to the people he met.
“People recognized that it was just me and that I was a genuine candidate,” says Thorheim.
Thorheim’s opponents for the primary were all established politicians. He won it handily nonetheless and ultimately the election in September 2021 itself.
“It was a test for Norwegian democracy,” says Thorheim. “We are all equals with the right to vote. In theory, we are also equal in the right to run as a candidate.”
Thorheim, however, was repeatedly told that without any money, staff or sponsors, his ambition could not be fulfilled. “Most people bet against me, and I had no plan B,” he explains.
“It was very difficult to take this kind of a risk when you have a family. It was definitely not the ‘safe option,’” he adds. Thorheim’s grassroots campaign also provided an immediate challenge for his family, who remained in Oslo. Thorheim did not want to neglect them and instead sought to visit them as often as he could.
The lawmaker found that his constituents are mostly focused on infrastructure, roads and preserving the ability travel safely within their region. Creating jobs, economic growth and preserving safe local communities are top priorities as well. Once elected, Thorheim decided to serve on a Parliamentary committee on energy and the environment.
Thorheim’s political aspirations, which had been dormant ever since his student days at the University of Oslo in the late 1990s when he served as the Deputy Chairman of Norway’s Conservative Student Union, had been awoken while serving as a political advisor to then Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide from 2017-2019.
But pragmatism and love of country led Thorheim to pursue a career in national security immediately following his studies. He started out as an intelligence officer in the Norwegian Army where Thorheim served from 1999-2005. In that capacity, he traveled around the world examining geopolitical hot spots where Norwegian troops could potentially be deployed in support of US and other NATO operations.
Thorheim also helped develop a network of human intelligence sources. “In the military I learned confidence, that almost anything can be accomplished if you put your mind to it.”
Norwegian Ministry of Defence, Oslo
He adds, however, that from the outside, the state appears strong and solid, but institutions are built and run by people, which is where you detect the vulnerabilities society and the state at large faces.”
Upon meeting Inger Karin Fuglesteg, his future wife, it became clear to Thorheim that a career in the intelligence services was not compatible with family life – at least without having to sacrifice precious time with young children – which is why he transferred in 2005 to Norway’s Foreign Ministry where he remained until 2019.
It was during his stint as a political advisor to the Foreign Minister (2017-2019) – a career position – which helped Thorheim determine that he wanted to be front and center and no longer in the background as a staffer.
In our interview, Thorheim acknowledges that giving out his private cell phone number to constituents is unique, adding that they often call to provide feedback.
He has not experienced any abuse for having given out his number. “People appreciate being heard, says Thorheim, adding: “It is much more useful listening to them, the people on the ground, then to my own political advisors.”
When pressed on what they are most concerned about, Thorheim reveals that his constituents want Norway to preserve its sovereignty from the European Union. Norway is not a member of the EU, whose membership it twice rejected through popular referendums, but is a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
“They want to preserve Norwegian interests even though cooperation with EU is important, including on climate and security policies,” the lawmaker explains.
He adds, “People are patriotic and want to keep the balance between preserving Norwegian interests and global commitments. “It is not only about rational policy concepts, but it is also about emotions,” says Thorheim.
“The leftwing parties use ‘inequality’ as a pretext to foster, and ultimately justify, policies that are no longer about promoting equal opportunity but rather equal outcomes”
Man & Culture: What are your political ambitions?
“Ensuring that the conservatives return to power, and preventing Norway from becoming too much of a leftist country,” he says.
Thorheim is particularly concerned by the Norwegian left’s almost exclusive focus on what he calls the “inequality debate,” but acknowledges that too much inequality is not good for the country.
“The leftwing parties use ‘inequality’ as a pretext to foster, and ultimately justify, policies that are no longer about promoting equal opportunity but rather equal outcomes,” says Thorheim.
“Young people today don’t have a collective understanding of what communism is,” the lawmaker argues, adding: “If you make an intellectual experiment where you divide a country into two parts, one ‘socialist’ and the other ‘capitalist,’ to determine which policies work best, that has already been tried in Germany.”
Thorheim is, of course, referring to the division of Germany after World War II. Germany, however, unified in 1990 and remains one of the world’s strongest economies.
“In East Germany there was ‘equal outcome,’ but West Germany was the most successful of the two by any metrics.” The division between the two Koreas is even more extreme, he adds.
At the same time, conservative policies should not foster too much inequality as it fosters instability in society, the lawmaker argues. “Too little inequality is not good either as it destroys innovation, competition and entrepreneurship. People have different qualities and skills.”
Norway’s mixture of a capitalist economy with generous social services has served it well, leading it to become one of the world’s wealthiest countries, Thorheim says.
Once conservatives return to power, Thorheim aspires to become a cabinet minister. Given his defense and foreign policy experiences, it is not inconceivable that a future cabinet position could be either defense, foreign affairs or economic development.
Man & Culture: How do you perceive the current political tensions in the United States and their potential ramifications on the future of the West and for the Norway-America bilateral relationship in particular?
“Norway and the United States were founded on similar values. Norway’s constitution of 1814 was modeled after its American counterpart of 1776,” Thorheim says. The lawmaker expresses nonetheless concern over the state of polarization in America.
“Polarization is a weakness for a democracy, especially once these differences become so vast,” he says. “In Norway, there are eight political parties in Parliament, and some are even on the borderline of being communist,” Thorheim says.
Despite sharp differences among Norway’s various political parties, Thorheim believes that his political opponents are genuinely pursuing policies that they believe are in the best interests of the nation.
“Polarization is a weakness for a democracy, especially once these differences become so waste”
In reference to the present pollical turmoil in the United States, Thorheim believes that “the moment one starts to question each other’s’ motives, a ‘red line’ for what a healthy society is has been crossed. The lawmaker is nonetheless optimistic about America’s future as the country has gone through much harder periods in its history before. “It has prevailed every time,” he says.
We conclude our interview by discussing whether American style polarization could come to Norway?
“Yes, many of the trends that have developed in the US eventually come to Norway,” Thorheim asserts.
He adds: “One shouldn’t be afraid of political differences but need to be careful about how political opponents are addressed.” The key is, Thorheim argues, “is to advocate for your views but refraining from attributing negative motives to your pollical opponents,” says Throheim. “A respectful tone goes a long way,” he concludes.
Runs twice a week:
One with intervals and the second a slow distance run with his Newfoundland dog.
Strength exercises twice a week from his home gym,
which include three sets of:
· Max pull ups
· 20 sit ups and/or similar exercises
· 10 squats with weights
· 10 push ups