This is the first of a two-part interview with former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, who Split Ticket got the chance to interview. Kander was also the Democratic Party’s nominee for the Missouri Senate election in 2016 and came within two points of defeating incumbent Republican Roy Blunt. In the first part of this interview series, published below, he discusses his thoughts on electoral reform and national service, and how a sense of national identity may be rediscovered.
Kander recently published a book titled Invisible Storm, and we reference it in this interview series. You can find the link to the book here.
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Split Ticket: In your book Invisible Storm, you speak extensively about your time in the military. And one thing that I couldn’t help think of was this line that I once heard, where an old Senator once said that part of the reason the Senate used to be far more collegial is that in the past, many of the members served together in the military and so they had that perspective and shared experience binding them, serving as a reminder that there were some things bigger than politics. And that’s not necessarily there any longer. Is there merit to that idea, and in your time in the Missouri legislature, did you find that this was a thing as well, where veterans tended to get along better despite political affiliation?
Jason Kander: Well, yes, in that there tends to be a natural affinity between any group of people that have a mutually shared experience. But I actually feel that by having fewer elected officials who served in the military, what we’re losing is the advantage that comes with having more people in office for whom their campaign was not the hardest thing they’ve ever done in their life.
I don’t think you have to have been in the military for that to be the case. Teachers, Peace Corps volunteers — there’s all sorts of different professions where the stakes are higher than whether or not you just keep your job. And I just generally believe that by losing this, we’re going to get more people in office who think the worst thing that could ever happen is them losing their next election, and they’re going to make decisions accordingly.
Split Ticket: Increasingly, we’re seeing this separation between what the electorate might want and what a primary base might want. A good example is the GOP with gay marriage. 47 Republicans voted for its codification, and that got a lot of attention, but lost amidst all that noise is the fact that 157 Republicans voted against it. This is despite the fact that a supermajority of Americans and a plurality of Republicans support it. So why do you think so many GOP politicians voted against this? Was it out of a fear of losing primaries because of the GOP’s activist wing not supporting it?
Jason Kander: Yeah, of course it’s about a fear of losing primaries. Usually about every 50 years, American democracy gets a pretty full reboot to make sure it’s still a democracy. And we’re about 50 years overdue for one of those. It’s not like primaries are in the Constitution — they’re not! Primaries came along a little over 100 years ago as an innovation to actually inject people into the nominating process. That was because it had become an undemocratic process, where it really didn’t matter what happened in the general election, because you had a few people choosing who the nominee of a party was going to be. So people said, “Hey, let’s put people into the primary process”. The first major example of that presidentially was in 1960, and it was why JFK wound up defeating Lyndon B. Johnson in the Democratic presidential primary.
Well, that worked very well for a while — decades, actually. But eventually, politicians of both parties started figuring out ways to amass and hold on to power for themselves. That’s how this incentive structure works. I’m not demonizing politicians; it’s just how this works. So when you combine the technology of gerrymandering with the one party nature of our primaries, what you end up with is an increasingly polarized electorate, where the votes that matter the most are the votes of the people who are the most partisan, and therefore the most likely to show up in the summer primaries.
That means you can end up with 10% of the district really determining what the agenda is going to be. And obviously, we have more problems than just this in our democracy — for example, voter suppression is a thing that needs to be addressed. But when you combine gerrymandering with closed partisan primaries where you’re stuck choosing from only one party, you end up with a system like that.
I think jungle primaries and ranked choice voting are much healthier systems, because they remove a lot of the incentive to create a zero sum partisan game with pure partisan attacks. Because if you’re in a ranked choice voting situation, and you’re trying to not just win votes, but also to win second-place votes, then you’re a lot less likely to go scorched earth. And you’re a lot more likely to try and seek common ground and actually represent the totality of your district, as opposed to just appealing to the people whose votes you need in a partisan primary.
Split Ticket: The notion of jungle primaries has come under criticism of late because of the scenario where a ton of candidates from the district’s preferred party splinter the vote, meaning that the party gets locked out of the top two as a result. This happens at least once each cycle in California...
Jason Kander: Now, that happens once per cycle in California. It is a legitimate criticism of jungle primaries, and it’s what makes ranked choice voting, in my opinion, better than that system. But the ultimate result we’re talking about here is ending up with an official who’s really only representing a small portion of that district. That (a lockout) is happening roughly 2% of the time or so under jungle primaries. But in the rest of the country, it’s happening 98% of the time under the current system.
Split Ticket: On the topic of electoral reform, people have this complaint about the Senate too, where many feel it over-represents certain demographics and regions. What would you say about that?
Jason Kander: Well, it’s obviously entirely true. I mean, the fact that DC still isn’t a state has nothing to do with the merits of DC statehood. It’s just a racial gerrymander of the US Senate to prevent two additional Democratic senators. If DC were 85% white and had a tendency to elect Republican mayors, Mitch McConnell would be in favor of statehood tomorrow. So gerrymandering isn’t even limited to the House.
The thing about all this is that there’s no legitimate debate about what should happen to better our democracy, right? Whether it’s passing the Voting Rights Act again, getting rid of gerrymandering, abolishing the Electoral College, or abolishing partisan primaries and replacing them with ranked choice voting, people are only debating whether or not they’d be happy with the outcome, not about whether it would be more fair.
So the problem is the path between where we are and where we need to be in terms of changing those things. And there’s two ways to get there. One way is to elect such a large majority in the system that makes it extremely difficult to do — essentially, elect such a large progressive majority that you get these changes done. But even that doesn’t guarantee it, because once the Democratic Party has that kind of power, you’re going to have large disagreements over whether or not to change a system that gave the party that kind of power, because we’re not immune to that sort of self-interested thinking either.
The other way to do it is much harder, and it’s to achieve a large cultural change. A change where Americans are more interested in knowing other Americans who are not exactly like them, or don’t believe exactly as they do. And for that, you’ve got to look at the underpinnings of culture that led to this polarized result.
We used to have shared experiences. When there was a major event on TV, for example, we’d all watch it. But even that’s not true any longer. 45 million people watched the Oscars at one point, and now, many of those people watch nothing. What this eventually results in is that we are lacking in national identity. I don’t mean identity as in identity politics. I mean that it’s very hard to answer the question, “What does it mean to be an American?”. It’s very difficult to pin down what it means. And that’s because we have entered a “choose-your-own-reality” phase of our existence.
Now, everything I’ve said so far is just a problem that everybody understands and can identify, but one that nobody knows what to do about. To me, this is why we need to seriously begin a conversation about mandatory service. I’m not talking about mandatory military service. But if we’re going to get to a point where people feel like there is humanity in people who disagree with them, or look differently than them, or have different backgrounds to them, then we’re going to have to get to know each other again.
It’s not going to happen in our current media and technological environment. So we’re going to have to do something that makes that happen. I actually think Americans have a yearning to know each other again, I think that’s what a lot of this frustration is about.
Split Ticket: This reminds me of something Mayor Pete Buttigieg had in his platform when he ran for President. But if it’s not military service you’re advocating for, then what type of service are we talking about?
Jason Kander: It could be anything. I mean, look, we got an aging population, and people are going to have to take care of aging Americans, right? There’s so many different ways, particularly when the nature of work is changing. And as automation becomes more prevalent, there’s going to be more of a need for human services that might not be the most profitable, but still need to be done. And, you know, if you’re a white kid from the suburbs, and when you graduate high school, you spend a year taking care of an elderly person who is not a white person from the suburbs? Well, I feel like there’s a pretty good chance that a few years later, when someone talks to you about the issue of voter suppression, you’re more likely to understand it, as opposed to insisting that it’s not real.
Split Ticket: What about potential inequalities propagated in a mandatory service system? Some people might not be able to afford a year off to go participate in a program like that, especially if they come from low-income backgrounds.
Jason Kander: That’s why I’m not yet saying that we should have a bill, but rather that we need to start having this conversation, and we need to figure this out. And my answer to the inequities of it is: that’s why it has to be mandatory, because things become unequal when they can be avoided. Take the draft in the Vietnam era, which could be evaded by the upper class. This shouldn’t be something people can evade.
It also shouldn’t be a volunteer position; we should pay people to do this. It should be a job, and it should pay well. That would put a lot of people in a good position at a young point in their lives, because it would give them a skill, and more than anything, it wouldn’t cause anybody to to fall behind anyone else. Because every American would be doing the same thing for a year or two, and everybody would be compensated well for it.
There’s a lot of people who regret having not done something in public service. And when you ask them why they didn’t serve, they will usually say that they felt like they needed to hurry up and get their career started. But why do they feel this way? Is it money? Well, if you’re going to pay them, you can take money out of the equation. But a lot of the time, it’s also because they look around at their peers, and they see that other people aren’t serving, and they don’t want to fall behind. So if everybody served a year, nobody falls behind.
This would also create a shared experience. It would give you a greater ability to answer the question of “What does it mean to be an American?”
I’m a software engineer and a computer scientist (UC Berkeley class of 2019 BA, class of 2020 MS) who has an interest in machine learning, politics, and electoral data. I’m a partner at Split Ticket, handle our Senate races, and make many kinds of electoral models.