Jason Kander is the founder of the voting rights activism group Let America Vote and the former secretary of state of Missouri. A Kansas City native, he enlisted in the Missouri National guard after 9/11 when he was a student at American University. He completed ROTC while at Georgetown Law to gain his commission as a second lieutenant in the army and later volunteered for deployment to Afghanistan in 2007. In 2016, Kander ran for the the United States Senate against incumbent Roy Blunt (R) and narrowly lost the election, but gained national attention for a viral ad of him putting together an AR-15 while blindfolded and discussing his support for background checks. Kander most recently was a Pritzker Fellow at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics. He was interviewed by a member of his Fellows Team, Zubair Merchant, a third-year ROTC member.
Gate: How did you transition your skills from the service into politics?
Jason Kander: Probably the first way it transferred was work ethic. My first race, when I ran for state representative in Kansas City, was a three-way Democratic primary, and everybody said, “Nice young man, probably gonna come in a distant third.” I went out and personally knocked on twenty thousand doors. And for a lot of that, I wore the same boots that I’ve worn overseas—they were well broken-in, and I physically outpaced the competition. And a lot of that had to do with the fact that I could march through snow, and rain, and heat, so I just keep knocking on doors and any time it got hard, I just remembered how much easier it was than a fifteen-mile ruck march. I think that was the first time that it ever really transferred over.
Gate: Were there any pivotal moments in your army career or deployment that elucidated core values of yours or taught you something about yourself?
Kander: [My army career] taught me something about myself, definitely. As early as ROTC, you have those moments like, “Oh wow I can do this” or “Wow, I do have some leadership traits built in.” I can’t think of a particular moment, but it's certainly the case that there were times when you’re leading soldiers and you realize that you really are getting it figured out and you have a pretty clear idea of how to follow those army values and how to live your life that way.
Gate: Do you think the military-civilian divide is dangerous for the military and for society? If so, in what ways?
Kander: I do. When I first came home in early 2007, a lot of people were so focused on Iraq because that was in the news. There was a lot of misunderstanding about whether or not anything was still going on in Afghanistan, and I remember really being struck by that. I thought, if the general public isn't aware because they’re not being told that things are not going as well as they should be in Afghanistan, then how are we going to adjust course and do better?
I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and be flabbergasted and ask why I would ever join the military and tell me that they don’t know anybody who has ever served in the military, and it always amazes me when that happens. It's not their fault, but when it's such a small minority of people who feel touched by the military being deployed, who really feel like it affects their life, that definitely puts us in danger of engaging at a lower threshold. I think that's bad for the country, and it's definitely of concern for people in the military.
After 9/11, I decided I was going to join the military and it’s amazing how many of my professors said, “You don't have to, so why would you?” Other people I met just didn’t understand why I was doing it, but, to me, it just didn’t make any sense not to. It was clear the country was going to war and here I was, able-bodied and twenty so it felt to me like, “How would I not?” It is what my grandfather did, its what my great-grandfather did. They didn’t have careers in the army or anything. Their country went to war and they went, did their part, and came home.
That just seemed like a really practical act to me. It seemed like a really patriotic act to me, but it also just seemed like that's what you should do. I also was very aware that if I didn’t then that just meant someone else was going to go. I thought that if I could be good at my job then maybe I could help somebody else come home too. I could contribute to other people coming home safe. Once you think about it that way, how do you justify not going?
Gate: Where do you think Trump is failing on commander’s intent?
Kander: I’ve talked a lot about how it is beyond him not having a strategy, it's a lack of commander's intent. I’m sure people will read this who aren’t army. Commander's intent was taught to us in the army as the guidance or way in which you empower your subordinates to make a decision in a situation where your guidance didn’t speak directly to it. Commander’s intent is the ultimate goal that a superior officer wants their subordinates to achieve and is important, so that everyone is on the same page about what their common end goal is. He just hasn’t done that.
He has no vision of what he wants to do in the world, his guiding philosophy of his presidency seems to be just get to tomorrow. No matter what’s going on today, just put up any kind of distraction, say what you need to say to ease your own personal discomfort, that being Donald Trump’s, and just get to tomorrow. That’s an incredibly dangerous way to run foreign policy and an incredibly dangerous way to approach national security. When you see Secretary Tillerson and Secretary Mattis and Ambassador Haley all putting forward slightly different statements and slightly different positions for the administration it's because he hasn’t laid down any commander's intent and because they don’t know what he wants. That's a problem because it's clear he doesn’t know what he wants because he's not that interested.
Gate: And then he’ll contradict them.
Kander: Yes, he’ll contradict them and he undermines them. You look at what he’s doing with North Korea right now. Nobody really knows, and I think including him, what this strategy is about, to saber rattle, and, as a result when decisions have to be made by subordinate commanders, they don’t know what his vision is, they don’t know what his commander's intent is, there's no consistency to it. And it makes it that much more difficult for them to do their jobs, and that puts Americans in that much more danger.
Gate: Fifty-four years ago, President Kennedy was able to deploy strategic patience for thirteen days when we very well could have began a nuclear war, and now I don’t know if we can have the same trust in this president.
Kander: If the Cuban Missile Crisis happened right now, I think everyone acknowledges that we would be in a whole lot more danger than we were under President Kennedy. I can’t imagine President Trump making it through those thirteen days without a whole lot of Americans dying in a nuclear war.
Gate: In forty years, what will be the most important foreign policy issue?
Kander: I don’t know. And that's the thing about foreign policy. You have to be able to be open to the fact that the world is constantly changing and you have to be prepared to respond to that.
Gate: Where do you see Let America Vote in five years?
Kander: My ideal situation is that five years from now we’ve done such a good job that we’re no longer necessary, but I don’t know if that will be the case. I’m really focused on 2018 and taking it one election cycle at a time because we need to make an impact now. So for 2018 we’re gonna be in these five states. We’ve been in Virginia this year, and the entire mission is to create political consequences for voter suppression. A lot of what we do in the coming years will be dictated by what we do this year.
Gate: A few years ago the Supreme Court made a decision in Shelby County v. Holder that struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 4 is a pre-clearance requirement in the Voting Rights act that requires certain states with a history of voting discrimination, mostly those in the South, to ask the federal government for permission to pass certain voting laws. Since that was struck down, we’ve seen a lot of the Voter ID laws that you’ve been fighting in particular. Do you think we can fix the Voting Rights Act? Or must that come about through activist organizations like Let America Vote?
Kander: It is entirely possible to update the Voting Rights Act. I had a call recently with Congresswoman Terri Sewell [(D-AL)] who introduced a bill to do that. Previously, reauthorizations were passed almost unanimously. There was a time not that long ago where this was not at all controversial, and now we have a President who sees white supremacists march in Charlottesville, Virginia and says that some of them were very fine people. He has changed the paradigm in a really terrible way and it's evidenced by the fact that, looking at legislation like the Voting Rights Act, landmark civil rights legislation suddenly become controversial. Can we do something? Yes. It’s easy. It should be.
Congress should be able to pick this thing up and pass it in a day. It just takes members of Congress who care more about equal rights in this country than they do about keeping their own jobs. And I say keeping their own jobs because you have a lot of Republicans who represent districts where they frankly made the calculation that if fewer black people vote they’re more likely to win, and that's really gross. That's why we created Let America Vote, to create political consequences for that kind of, in that case, inaction. So a lot can be done about it, but we need to make sure that there's a political consequence for not doing something about it.
Gate: What can we do to restore the voting rights of formerly incarcerated people?
Kander: Folks can get involved depending on what state they’re from because there's a lot going on in other states, and every state has different rules about it. In some states, you can just help formerly incarcerated people navigate the process, in other states you’ve got to change the law. It takes activism and you’ve got to lobby the legislature, but what we’ve been doing is getting active in places like Florida where they’ve got a Restore the Vote campaign. I’ve written op-eds in places like Louisiana as well and I just think we’re asking people to re-enter society so we’ve got to give them every opportunity to re-enter society in a whole way. And that includes restoring the right to vote. The idea that you have, for instance, committed a drug crime and could potentially go the rest of your life without counting in our democracy doesn’t make any sense to me.
Gate: What reforms need to be made to the criminal justice system?
Kander: There are numerous. There's a need for real, serious reform across the board, but you also have a need for prison reform. People don’t ever really talk about that but we have this broken system where we send a good-sized portion of our population off for long periods of time, knowing that they’re going to be released at some point and doing nothing to prepare them for that release and nothing to try and make sure that it's less likely that they return into that system. So there are obvious injustices and inequalities in the system. If you look at this recent verdict in St. Louis, the judge’s opinion made me sick to my stomach.
Gate: What do you think is the most important policy area that is getting the least amount of focus?
Kander: Right now, and this was not true last year, but right now it's college affordability. Last year it was a major topic in the campaign, and with Republicans in power it has just completely disappeared from the conversation. The reason I think it's a really important topic is that it's more than just an issue that affects millennials and people about to go to school or folks just out of school. I’ve been to so many small towns around the country that are getting hollowed out because folks go off to college and the wages are not high enough back home and the debt is so deep from school that they can’t afford to go back to their smaller town and so they don’t. A lot of those people want to go home but they can’t, and that’s really devastating communities all around the country. I think we ought to be talking about it and we ought to be talking about it as more than just a college affordability issue. It's a rural America, small town, and urban America issue because there are also urban areas where wages aren’t high enough.
Gate: If you had the magic power to affect one policy change, and everyone in the country would support it, what would that policy be?
Kander: It would probably be ending gerrymandering altogether, complete redistricting reform, and changing the way we do our elections in order to make the general election really matter everywhere so that legislators at every level are incentivized to come home with results. Right now, we have an improperly incentivized marketplace of ideas in our politics where people on both sides are encouraged to call each other names as opposed to get stuff done. It’s not even about moving people to the middle. People could stay on far ends, but if they’re incentivized to make progress together then they’re gonna get things done in a bipartisan way even if they agree on very little.
Gate: If you weren’t in politics, what do you think you’d be up to?
Kander: I don't know if it counts for a second choice, because what I wanted to do was play center field for the Kansas City Royals. I really don’t know what my second choice was but I really enjoy writing so I would probably do a lot more writing, and I also practiced law and I really loved the military. So, I don’t know exactly what I would do but I’ve always really enjoyed writing and I really enjoy documentaries. I don’t know if I’m creative enough but I think it would be interesting to do something like that.
Gate: Future Ken Burns?
Kander: I have no idea if I would have any skill for it, but it's a really cool area, and I would really enjoy it.
Gate: What are some books that have shaped your worldview?
Kander: One for sure is Once An Eagle, by Anton Myrer. It’s a historical fiction book about two characters. One is Sam Damon, a Mustang, a guy who was enlisted and then got a battlefield commission during World War I and received the Medal of Honor. The rest of the book goes all the way through Vietnam and follows his life and his career, but the other character that it tracks is a guy named Courtney Massengale, who is more of a staff officer and who is a political climber in the military, and it follows the way they orbit each other throughout their lives.
The book is really about leadership; it’s about putting your people ahead of yourself and sacrifice. The author was a marine in World War II in the Pacific Theater. I mean the writing is pretty incredible, particularly the parts where the main character becomes a battalion or brigade commander in the Pacific, island hopping in World War II. It’s an incredible book because it’s just a big story about leadership without having to come out and say it. So that's my favorite book. I’ve re-read it several times. That’s the one that has shaped my thinking the most.
Gate: What would a member of the public be the most shocked to learn about the process of running for a US Senate seat?
Kander: I think the average citizen would be really bothered, and rightfully so, if they saw the amount of time the average candidate for any office has to spend on fundraising versus getting to know the issues, talking to their constituents, and listening. It’s a real problem and its a problem regardless of which party you belong to. We’ve unfortunately set up a system now where the money chase is so time-consuming for candidates that it makes it really difficult for candidates or members of Congress to really dig in and listen to their constituents.
Gate: I know that congressmen and senators spend a lot of time in their day going to a call center across the street from the Capitol and making calls to constituents asking for donations.
Kander: Our campaign finance system in some ways has turned members of the US House of Representatives into telemarketers, and there is just no way that this process is making you a better representative.
Gate: Do you think that the DCCC and NRCC are also partially guilty for it or do you think that it's just the systems fault?
Kander: I think it's the way that the system’s been set up. Politicians play by the rules as they get them. The ones who I think should be held responsible for this are the ones who have done nothing to change the rules. If I’m gonna be honest about it, right now it's mostly the Republican Party that wants to keep the campaign finance system the way it is. But the system of financing campaigns is a huge problem. I think the vast majority of the country actually knows that. The only place where campaign finance reform is actually controversial is in state capitols and the US Capitol. It's in buildings where the only people who work there are politicians. Everybody else across the political spectrum thinks it makes sense.
Gate: Are there any issues on which you see yourself breaking from the mainstream Democratic party?
Kander: It’s hard to say because it's hard to say what the mainstream Democratic Party is at this point. But in the past, for instance in Missouri, when I was fighting for campaign finance and ethics reform, neither party was happy with me about that. And I think there are always going to be issues like that—where you take on the establishment, it upsets people in both parties, and that's sometimes how you know you’re doing a good job
This interview was edited for content and clarity.
The author’s views do not necessarily reflect the views of the Gate.