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Mayor Pete Buttigieg talks about systemic racism, regulating tech, and the divided Democratic Party on Recode Decode

“The internet started out as the delicate flower. It had to be cultivated and we had let it see where it was going to go. Now we know where it’s going to go, and it’s time to put in the guardrails.”

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2020 presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg.
2020 presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg talks with Recode’s Kara Swisher at a taping of the Recode Decode podcast on July 11, 2019.
Christina Animashaun/Vox

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is a popular 2020 candidate among Silicon Valley’s wealthy donors, but taking their money won’t deter him from regulating Big Tech, he said on the latest episode of Recode Decode With Kara Swisher.

“The internet started out as this delicate flower that had to be cultivated and we had to let it see where it was going to go,” Buttigieg said. “Now we know where it’s going to go, and it’s time to put in the guardrails.”

Among Buttigieg’s proposals for tech regulation: a national data privacy framework that guarantees the “right to be forgotten” from the internet; recognition of Uber drivers and other gig economy workers as employees with the right to unionize; and more aggressive scrutiny of companies like Facebook when they try to acquire smaller competitors like WhatsApp and Instagram.

“If something doesn’t have a charge for the service, that doesn’t mean that it can consolidate infinitely without any harms,” he said. “One thing you might look at is when companies that have that kind of scale and power propose mergers, you assume that it’s invalid and require them to carry the burden of proving that it should be allowed instead of the other way around.”

You can listen to and watch the interview below. And below that, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Pete.

If you haven’t already, make sure to subscribe to Recode Decode wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and TuneIn. We’ll have more interviews with 2020 presidential candidates later this week: Sen. Michael Bennet and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.

Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, editor-at-large of Recode. You may know me as someone who’s been practicing how to say Buttigieg — I think I nailed it.

Pete Buttigieg: You got it.

But in my spare time I talk tech, and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media Podcast Network. Today in the red chair is, obviously, Pete Buttigieg, also known as Mayor Pete because he’s the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. He’s also running for president of the United States. We’re going to talk about the 2020 campaign so far, his views on tech policy, and much more.

Mayor Buttigieg, welcome to Recode Decode.

Thanks for having me.

I guess I can’t call you Peter, right?

Feel free.

Does anyone call you Peter?

My mom.

Your mom, okay.

She has to.

I’m not going to be your mom, so let’s start with that. So there’s lots to talk about. I’m going to focus a little more on tech and different things like that. But let’s start with your announcement today, the Douglass Plan.


Which you compared to the Marshall Plan.

Yeah, the idea is that if America could mount a Marshall Plan to invest in Europe after World War II, we ought to be ready to have that level of ambition and that level of intention going into supporting black America here at home. We’ve been working on this for months, and we’ve written a little bit about it the past, but today I’m releasing the full details of the plan.

The basic idea is that we can no longer believe that if you take racist policies and systems and you replace them with neutral policies that everything will just get better on its own. The harms that have happened as a result of systemic racism compound. And so if we want to deal with this in our time, we’re going to have to have intentional action across every area of American life, where it’s currently like two different countries. That’s housing, it’s education, it’s health, it’s entrepreneurship and access to capital. It’s criminal justice, and it’s democracy itself. And our plan includes resources and proposals for each of those areas of American life.

Focused just on black America?

That’s right, we have a lot to say for lots of different voices in the party.

Because there’s other colors. There’s Hispanics, there’s ...

Yeah, but there is a unique dimension to the black experience in this country, which is that black Americans have been systematically, and for most of American history, legally excluded in ways that — other than Native Americans — has been pretty unique to the black experience. And that that persists. People talk about some of these things like they’re far off, distant, quaint harms, but one of the things I’m trying to convey is that when you think about compounding, the way that debt compounds and the way that investment compounds. A dollar stolen from somebody 150 years ago works out to $1,000 stolen from their descendants today. And it’s why if we really want to deal with this in our time, America’s got to be intentional.

Intentional about this. Now, I’m going to ask the obvious question. In pretty much a flawless roll-out for you, this has been a problem, this issue around how you deal with the residents of South Bend, the African American residents of South Bend and others. How do you push off the idea that people might consider this pandering, in some fashion?

Well, first of all, we’ve been working on this for months.


And it’s the right thing to do. There’s no question that it’s part of a bigger conversation we’re having about race in this country, and in my campaign, and as an urban mayor, presiding over a city that’s diverse and that has had tons of struggles. Even though I’ve earned black support repeatedly in my own city, we’ve also faced a lot of criticism for the fact that we couldn’t resolve issues, from housing discrimination to mistrust around policing.

Right now, we’re dealing with an officer-involved shooting in the city that has surfaced a lot of deeper harms and pains, even as the particular incident is being investigated. On some level, no matter what the investigation tells us, we know that it is arousing the pain beneath the individual news of the day that’s brought about by what’s happened in our city, and what’s happened around the country, when it comes to the relationship of police and communities of color.

But even behind that, every time we have a community conversation, as we’ve been doing for years, and take community action, as we’ve been doing for years, on something like public safety, inevitably, the conversation goes back to bigger questions around things like economic empowerment. And one of the biggest things I’ve learned the hard way as a mayor is that everything is connected, and we can’t fully resolve any of this until we tackle all of this.

Is it something that just occurred to you, or did you realize it as being a mayor? Because … is it something that never occurred to you in your life experience?

Well, it’s one thing to understand it academically, or to generally care about it because you view yourself as a good person who’s concerned with justice. It’s another to be responsible for the wellbeing of a community and to be trying to come up with answers when your own residents, who are effectively your boss, are saying, “Look, I’m living a completely different life than people a mile away from me. This city’s coming back, but my neighborhood’s not.”


”And I need to know what you’re going to do about it.”

And some of the things you were doing could’ve affected them in a negative way.

Well, I think what we were doing did a lot of good, but some of it’s politically controversial. Especially when there’s a political rival wanting to tell a different story about it, right, that’s just my job as somebody defending our policies.

A good example about how these things work differently in different communities is, we did a lot of investment to help minority neighborhoods that were struggling from the effects of vacant properties, mostly owned by out-of-town landlords who had walked away from them years ago. And they’re crumbling and harming the low-income and largely minority neighbors living next to them. Now, it’s pretty easy for a political rival to make that look like a gentrification project, but on the west side of South Bend, where a very good house is often $40,000, we have a different set of issues than the issues that are top of mind for some of the people who write from afar about the work that we’re doing. And it’s my job to explain what it meant in the context of our city to take on some of these issues, again, from housing to public safety.

A couple weeks ago, you also were talking about African American women being the backbone, do you feel ... why?

Because outcomes change. I mean, the big lesson of 2018 was that mobilization of black women can change electoral outcomes. And I wanted to make sure that I was communicating my awareness of that. Especially as an urban mayor, and because I’m not black...


… I may be the white candidate who will be asked most frequently about race. And I think that creates a responsibility to be especially robust in how I talk about policies and politics that are going to impact people of color. And frankly, a lot of these conversations are conversations white America needs to have with itself, too. We can no longer treat racial inequality as a sort of specialty issue that you trot out when you’re talking to a black audience, because the entire country is being held back, and I think in many ways could unravel around racial inequality. And it comes down hardest on those who are victims of systemic racism, but diminishes the entire nation.

But you still have to appeal to this group, how do you get them ... because your numbers with ... they’re not very good, and this is ... if you were to run for president, you need this group.

Yeah, of course. Well, first of all was making sure that we’ve made clear what our plans are, and that’s part of what the roll-out of the Douglass Plan is doing. We get fantastic feedback on that when we share it with all audiences, but especially black audiences. Another thing is just making sure you get known. So our biggest challenge by far in the black community right now is name recognition. We need to make sure that, as a candidate who’s not been on the scene for years and is somebody who is not coming from a community of color, I can establish what we’re about, how my record works, and why we made the choices we did. And where I’m seeking to lead the country as president, why it’s going to make a difference compared to our competitors.

Why do you deserve their vote over Kamala Harris or Elizabeth Warren or anybody else?

We’re putting forward what I think is the most comprehensive plan yet laid out for these concerns. And fitting it into a bigger picture around where the country is headed. There are a lot of competitors that I admire, that I respect, but I think right now is a time when we need to look for experience gathered outside of Washington, but in government.


To try to change the channel from the show that we’re on right now. Where everybody, even the president’s opponents, seem to spend most of their energy talking about him.


And fewer and fewer people are talking about you at home and how your life is going to be different.

So let’s talk about that. It was written in Vox just recently, you were President Trump’s “polar opposite, whose focused on political reforms like abolishing the Electoral College channels their frustration with a system that feels rigged in the GOP’s favor.” Another thing: “In 2019, he almost seems like a lab-engineered appeal to the variety of Democrats looking for a clear antidote to President Trump.” Well, you’re not a robot, right? Is that correct?

No, I didn’t come from a lab.

Okay, all right.

I came from Indiana.

But the idea of not talking about him, but you do talk about ... I mean, that’s part of that ...

It’s true, we’ve got to do two things at once, right? When he lies, we’ve got to say what the lie is and say what the truth is. And when he does something wrong we’ve got to call it out, no question. But we always have to come back to what we’re going to do to make your life different, because that’s the turf we win on.

I mean, first of all it’s the right thing to do, but also Americans agree with us on raising wages, they agree with us on preserving and expanding access to health care, they agree with us on immigration, they even agree with us on guns, even though we’ve been in a defensive crouch on this issue politically, the reality is, the vast majority of Republicans, let alone Americans, think we ought to have things like universal background checks and red flag laws.

So in order to win and in order to deserve to win, we have to be shifting the conversation to reality, to the facts on the ground.

And that’s how a mayor thinks. As a mayor, I don’t get to thump my chest and talk about “making South Bend great again.” If there’s a hole in the road, I get called out for it, and need to go out there and fix it. And the same thing on the big issues around economic development or growth. And we’ve gotten away from that at the national level, where it seems like the president wants to create his own reality. And it turns out that on his show, even if you’re fighting him, even if you’re winning, you’re losing.


If it’s his show.

Yeah. Did you watch his show? No, you would’ve been too young.

Oh, you mean The Apprentice?

Yeah, yeah.

Yeah, occasionally, it was entertaining, but ...

So you don’t think he’s the opponent then, in that regard?

Well, he’s the result of some deep systemic problems that are certainly something you see in my part of the industrial Midwest. I come from a community where we just now got our per capita income back over $20,000 per person. And there are neighborhoods in my community, even though I’m very proud of our growth — really, there’s neighborhoods in my community where it’s like the economic growth of the last 40 years never even happened. And for far too many Americans we’ve been told the rising tide will lift all boats, and it’s just not true.

I think that a lot of people, especially in my part of the country, voted for this president under no illusions about whether he was a good guy, just in order to burn the house down.


Which is exactly what we’re getting now. And so part of it has to do with his unique combination of ... whatever it is he is. But a lot of it, I think, is a set of failures in our current reality, in our kind of neoliberal consensus, that is breaking down. If it wasn’t him, I really think it might be somebody else.

So when you’re saying “burn the house down,” they wanted to take things out ... I’ve had a lot of candidates talk about this, this idea of we’re going to vote for him because the whole thing is a mess. How do you then appeal to people that it’s not a mess?

It is a mess.

Because you’re doing a little burn the house down, like it’s ...

They’re not ... that’s my point.

So it’s reforms.

They’re not wrong.


Okay, when he says that the elections were rigged by busloads of immigrants, that’s obviously false. But who can look at districts drawn so that politicians are picking out their voters and not say that in a certain very well and very naked sense, elections are rigged? The question is what we’re going to do about the fact that there was these deep flaws in our democracy, deep flaws in our economy.

And that’s why I think it is very, not only wrong for America, but also wrong politically, if we feel tempted to have a message that’s basically “back to normal,” right? It’s so chaotic now, let’s just go back to normal.” And I don’t think Democrats can take us back to the 2000s anymore than Republicans can take us back to the 1950s. We’ve got to present something new, something that responds to an economy where people my age and younger are going to be changing professions more often than my parents changed job titles. Something that responds to a democracy that’s getting less democratic, not more. And really entertain the need for these structural deep reforms, that if we get them right, could make this next half century that we’re about to launch into a very enlightened time of growth and prosperity. But if we get it wrong, it will be so ugly that there might be no going back, and we’re seeing some of that now.

But you’re talking about reforms that are quite drastic. I mean, in a lot of ways ...

If that’s what you think is drastic in this country ...

I mean, the message is, it’s not working.


Which is an old message, like every politician comes in and says it’s not working, we know better how to fix it.

Yeah, but a lot of times it’s not working so elect me, and I’m going to work the very same pulls and levers, but work them a little bit differently and everything will be better. And it just doesn’t work. So what we need to do is change things deeply, it’s why I’m talking about reforming the Supreme Court, which this country’s done half a dozen times, but reforms to ...

Explain to people who don’t know ... you want to add people to the Supreme Court.

Well, one of the solutions would involve adding people, but the point isn’t adding people, the point is the structure has to include people who are not appointed on a partisan basis.

Right. So it’ll go through this every time.

We can’t have an apocalyptic ideological firefight every time somebody dies or retires. And there are different ways you can get at that. One that I think is interesting is to have a member of the court where a third of the members are chosen by a unanimous consensus of the others. That’s just one of the solutions I think could work.

The point is, in a country whose most elegant quality is the fact that we reform our democracy, that we move to the direct election of Senators, that we adjusted the voting age, we’ve done things over the years to shore up our democracy, often by Constitutional amendment. And then sometime in the 70s, we just stopped. We just stopped doing that. And now we’re seeing the consequences of that.

Some of these things that we’re accustomed to are set in stone, or talked about like they’re set in stone, but they shouldn’t be. The fact that DC is not a state, there is no principled argument why American citizens living in the District of Columbia — which, by the way, if it were a state, would be the most African American state in the country — there is no principled reason why they should be denied a voice in the Senate and the House.

There are things that we’re just tolerating because we’ve always done it this way. And now is the time to break the spell of we’ve always done it this way, because the way we’ve always done it doesn’t work.

Some people argue that that’s what Trump is doing. Every now and then you’re like, “Why do we do it that way?”


Like in terms of ...

Well, he’s smashing everything.


And so there’s tons of damage, but if there’s some benefit to that, it might widen our imagination about what’s possible. And we better have a bigger imagination because where we are right now is not going to work much longer. Republics, as a general rule don’t survive the current level of economic inequality without political violence. I want to fix that before it’s too late.

Political violence meaning “let’s torch the rich”?

Revolution. Who knows?


Yeah, all kinds of ... And I think we’re seeing this now, it doesn’t mean it automatically leads to reform. Right now, the inequality has contributed to a regime in Washington that is only making the inequality worse. The point is, you get weird, twisted, unhealthy political outcomes when you have the inequalities of economic power and political power that we see right now in our country today.

So would you have the power to do that, to shift it from a break-it-all-down ... I mean, I want to get into tech in a minute because tech’s ... as you know, Facebook’s famous bromide was “move fast and break things.”


“Break” was not a good word.

Well, they didn’t think through all of the things they were going to break.

Yeah. No, they didn’t think through any of them, actually. And breaking may not be the right verb.


You know, in a lot of ways, and we’ll get to that concept of breaking things. How do you feel like you have the ability to fix that?

Well, it matters who the president is. I don’t believe, as Trump said, “I alone can fix it.” It doesn’t work that way, that’s one of the things I learned as a mayor, as a mayor in a strong mayor system, where you’re still dealing with a lot of different dynamics. And a big part of the job is actually figuring out how to manage things you don’t control, and try to control things you don’t own. And I think it’s one of the reasons why being a mayor is actually an unusually apt preparation for the presidency, among the things you can do in your life before you become president.

But, it’s not just something that can be done out of the White House. You need a White House that gets it. You need, ideally, a president who’s arrived with some coattails, because it would be a lot easier to drive these reforms. I mean, the best answer by far to how do you deal with Mitch McConnell is for him to not be in the majority anymore.

Sure. But this isn’t going to be a landslide election for anybody, I think.

Well, we’ll see, I mean, we have an exceptionally unpopular president right now.

With an exceptionally good economy.

Is it though?

Well not for everybody, of course.

The Dow is going up, GDP ...

It’s good for ...

To me, the most interesting measure of our economy is life expectancy, it’s going down. Even in 2016, right? We had a so-called “economic anxiety” election under conditions of more or less full employment. And what it tells you is maybe the things we’re counting are not the right things.

Right. But it’s not going to be a coattail election. Most people don’t imagine that.

Oh, there’re going to be fierce challenges no matter what. But what we’re learning is those challenges are less and less ideological by the day. The fact that the Republican Party got taken over by an economic populist who doesn’t really have an ideology tells you that the next battles will not be along the sort of familiar left-right terms of the last battles. There’s some of that, but I think people are way overestimating how much this is a left, center, right fight versus a forward versus back fight.

And you’ve got a generation that is becoming politically awakened, including a generation of people I think in the kind of technological, digital native world who believed early on that politics was not relevant to them. Only to be so horrified by what’s happening now that there’s going to be an activation there. We’re seeing it in everything from the March For Our Lives to the new kinds of movements emerging around climate change, that I think can deeply change the conversation. It still matters enormously who’s in the White House.

Right. But having the power to do that, given the pain that has happened now, how do you heal that pain?

Well, we get results. The biggest thing we’ve got to do is undertake the reforms that are going to make a difference and summoning Americans into ...

But you need the political power to do so.

Yeah. Well, the first way you get that is by winning. The way you sustain it is to summon Americans and do bigger projects. It’s why I believe national service is very important because it sets up some common experiences for different Americans. It’s why I believe that we should undertake climate, not as something that makes people feel that they’re being kind of beaten over the head and told they’re bad, but as a national project that aligns private, public, academic, and social sectors to all be working together toward a solution. And this is what the right kind of leadership can do. Take division and get unification out of it, that’s what good leadership is. What we have now is the opposite. Even issues where people broadly agree, like the fact that most Americans want bipartisan immigration reform. The president’s turning it into a divisive issue because we are more useful to him divided than united.

Your mayorship is really small. It’s smaller than most congressional districts. What someone said to me last night, if you’re in the military, you don’t go from being a corporal to a general, either. Like you understand that you don’t ...

You know what’s funny, I wouldn’t be getting this question if I were a senator or a member of Congress.

I agree with you.

But if I were a senator ...

I think most people aren’t qualified to be president, but go ahead.

And look, you could be a very senior senator and have never in your life managed more than 100 people. I’m not in a job comparable to the American presidency. There is no job comparable to the American presidency.

And you do have the low bar we have now.

Well, yeah, but I know what it is to be responsible for the wellbeing of 100,000 people. To be responsible for the conduct of over 1,000 employees, to manage hundreds of millions of dollars in decisions. I know what it is to get a phone call at 3:00 AM about a situation where there was no win, only different ways to manage a problem. I know what it is to have to not only implement good policies and figure out how to manage something, but to summon people to their highest values when they look to you in a crisis.

And again, often in a crisis, there is a no-win situation. So while there was no job like the American presidency, I would argue that compared to a congressional district, where you’re in charge of maybe 15 people and your job is to vote on things, being a mayor of a city of any size in this country, but perhaps especially from the middle of the country and the kinds of communities that our party has struggled to connect with, is as good a preparation as government can give you.

So talk about the middle of the country, because that’s again, one of your appeals, and something you talk about a lot is that you all don’t know what’s going on elsewhere.

There’s this mystical fascination now with the Rust Belt, right? The reporters show up ...

I know.

“Take me to your dive bar,” as if we have all the keys to decoding ...

We have dive bars in San Francisco.

There’s that kind of a political story going on. But it really is true that our part of the country is where so many of these decisions have landed and so many of these decisions have failed. The promise, for example, that the rising tide would lift all boats. The reason people are so upset about trade, even though technology has demolished far more jobs than trade has.

One hundred percent.

It’s largely a consequence of the things that had been visited upon the industrial Midwest, which is why this president’s divisive message found very fertile ground in places like where I live. I think it’s very important to recover a progressive tradition that actually originated in the middle of the country. I mean, back in the day, if you go back 100 years ago, the conservatives were in the cities, socially, a bit more forward looking, but also mostly interested in retaining the prerogatives of the wealthy and the powerful.

And the progressives, the workers and the farmers coming out of my part of the country, so you had Bob La Follett and Eugene Debs, Indiana socialists, 100 years ago. And that the roots of that progressive tradition still belong, I think, in the middle of the country because we are the ones who are most alienated from the stupendous wealth being created for a few people in a few places. But the irony of it is, we can be a huge part of the solution. Take agriculture and climate change, very few people talk about climate as a rural issue. Other than the fact that rural Americans are now getting destroyed by irregular weather.

But from a solution side, there’s evidence that with the right kind of research, we could figure out a way to have soil take in as much carbon around the world as the global transportation sector puts out. But we’d have to invite rural America to be part of the solution and fund the research to actually do technically what ...

It’s something Bill Gates and Elon Musk are working on actually, that’s one of the companies. It’s carbon capture, essentially.

Right. People who are a little allergic on carbon capture because they think it might be an excuse to keep putting it in.

Yes, not fix everything.

And the reality is we’ve got to do both. I mean, even then we’ll be lucky to get to where we need to in terms of carbon neutral economy. Anyway, my point is the solutions are going to come largely from our communities, not from Washington. And Washington can play a role in helping communities circulate these solutions and empowering communities. Whereas what we have right now is kind of the worst of all worlds. We don’t have the benefits of the kind of FDR-style social state because it’s been gutted. But we’ve also seen that this sort of conservative myth that if you take down all the regulations and rules, we’ll all be better off. We’re seeing all the reasons why that is, in fact, a myth.

When you talk about the Midwest then I want to get to tech. There is that idea that real Americans live there. I mean, “I’m from the Midwest, I know what regular people want.” There are regular people, real Americans living in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, in New York City.

Of course.

How do you stop that, that idea? I was thinking about it the other day, when a lot of tech people are going to the Rust Belt and “we’re going to do Silicon …”

Right, the safaris.

Whatever, the safaris, yeah, yeah.

I am absolutely happy to welcome somebody who wants to have a Silicon Prairie moment in South Bend.

Yeah, but there is no such thing.

Because that’s how we’re building up. No, sure there is, we’re working on it. But it’s going to be different for us.

It’s interesting, it’s an interesting idea, this idea of this separation that there you either have to be Mayor Pete from the Midwest or elite person from California or, it creates a really ...

No, I think we can cut across as my own life story has cut across these things. I’ve lived and worked in cities and been educated overseas. But I also live in a middle-class neighborhood in the middle-American community that produced me.

Yeah, you’re pretty fancy.

Yeah, yeah, great education, and some of my best friends live in cities. I think the important thing is that we talk about who is benefiting, but I do think it’s also important that people understand just how different the experience really is in the middle of the country. Because while there are people at every rung of the economic ladder in San Francisco, for example, I have a hard time getting people from San Francisco to understand issues like the problem we have in South Bend of houses unaffordable because their prices are too low.

Yeah, you’d have that problem in San ...

If you have a $35,000 house, you can’t get a loan on a $35,000 house because the bank doesn’t think they’ll get their transaction costs back. And so understanding just how much variation there is. And by the way, this is one of the reasons why I think many of the urban growth patterns in our biggest cities, which I love to visit, are completely unsustainable. And that this will, over time, if we guide it the right way, help lead to a repopulation of the heartland.

Although most people think there’s going to be mega cities. Well, let’s talk about it, let’s move into tech, because that’s one issue, is the idea that there’ll be these mega cities that are gonna need technological solutions, that most people will be in the large cities.

You could argue the city itself is an invention whose basic function is to make it possible, physically, technologically possible, for us to live at a level of density where we are more productive and more happy. The relationship of technologies, from the original most important technologies ever, like sewers to stuff we’re talking about now like smart traffic signals and the kind of digitization of city life. Those things go hand in hand.

And, look, as a mayor, obviously I’m a city guy, I’m a believer in cities, but I do think we also need to recognize that as the mobility of people and information and funds grows, we may find ourselves less tethered to geographies, especially if those geographies develop in a way that’s unsustainable. And I think a lot of US cities are doing that.

All right, talk a little bit about your relationship to tech. You’ve been spending a lot of time out there at a time when there’s a techlash and a lot of candidates are avoiding it or attacking tech. You haven’t done that as much. Tell me why.

You know, I’m as skeptical as anybody about some of the harms that tech can do, but I think the idea of reducing it to being “for” or “against” tech is like saying we’re going to be, I don’t know, “for” or “against” food. This is a fundamental part of our lives. The question is, how are we going to organize it? And I think having witnessed innocence as well as the harm of my generation thinking up these tech platforms, and now wrangling with the consequences of what has been created, requires us to be thoughtful. And not just reach for the pitchforks, but really figure out what it’s going to take.

I’m going to ask you to be specific. What do you think the problems have been?

So one problem is anti-competitive behavior, right? But that’s actually the most old-fashioned of the problems. That’s something that’s not that different from what we saw happen with railroads.

Yeah, powerful ...

And if we have the right legal framework, which I do think needs to be tuned up, plus the right enforcement, which I think has been lax, then we have, I think as a country we roughly know how to handle that. There’s just some new qualities around tech that we’ve got to think about. Other things that are being ...

Can you be specific there? Saying there should be some sort of ... but what kind of breakup?

For example, if something doesn’t have a charge for the service, right? That doesn’t mean that it can consolidate infinitely without any harms.

Of course.

Just cause the product on its face is free. So we need a framework that can accommodate that. One thing you might look at is when companies that have that kind of scale and power propose mergers, you assume that it’s invalid and require them to carry the burden of proving that it should be allowed instead of the other way around, where it’s presumptively valid and the FTC has gotta jump in and block it. But this idea that a president’s gonna say, this or that company ought to be blown up at my whim, is not really consistent with, first of all, a rule of law that works, but also the policy that’s gonna make us better off. So are some of these companies too big? Yes. Is there anti-competitive behavior? Yes. Should they be enforced on? You bet.

What are your specific thoughts of which ones are too big? You don’t have any?

I don’t think it’s a job of a politician to pick a company and say ...

Really? Not to pick a company. But we could’ve said AT&T was too big or in this case it’s Facebook or Google.

Yeah. And again, it’s largely the anti-competitive behavior that I’m worried about. I do think things like the WhatsApp acquisition are questionable. I think the throttling of things on ... the way that Amazon privileges its own goods is something there should be an intervention on. But I also think what we most need is an FTC that’s empowered to handle these things.

But here’s what’s happening: We’re mad about two different things and we’re treating them like one. One of them is what we were just talking about, that the competition of monopoly behavior. The other one is the handling of data, and the reality is data security and data privacy problems can arise from tech companies of any size. We’re worried about how it’s playing out with the big players, but it could be anybody who I give my data to needs to be responsible with it.

It has a different effect when it’s enormous and in the hands of one company.

Yes, but often it’s a smaller company in ... I mean, think Cambridge Analytica. It’s not a massive player, but they did a massive amount of harm because of what they did in their kind of plug-in to a bigger system, which was Facebook. So we need to understand that these data security problems exist in a way that is not fully dependent on how big or small a company is. And for that reason, breaking up some company isn’t going to make those problems go away. We are shockingly behind when it comes to how our country thinks about these questions. I think we’ve got 50 states, we got 50 frameworks for dealing with this. We need to establish the rights that we have over the value that’s created from the data that we hand over.

Do you believe in a national privacy bill? Would that be something that you would think is important?

Yes, I think we need a national data framework. I think the right to be forgotten, for example, it needs to be encoded at a national level.

Whoa, really?


Interesting. That is the First Amendment, you know that’s a problem.

What’s that?

The First Amendment kind of gets in the way of that. What does that mean to you, the right to be forgotten? That’s in Europe, it’s super problematic.

Yeah. Look, the GDPR has got all kinds of issues and I think we can learn from it.

So you think the right to be forgotten should be in this country?

Yeah, I think we need to have some trail.


Well, this probably won’t be resolved until we also have a framework for data portability. Some vendor-neutral way of saying how some of our data is going to be collated and where it’s going to live. And some of these things are fierce technical as well as legal as well as Constitutional problems. But at the end of the day, we need to have some level of relationship to the value that is created in our name from our data, from our information.

Absolutely. But there’s one thing to control your data, it’s another thing to be able to delete things that are factual. That’s the problem with the right to be forgotten. Also, there is the First Amendment.

Well, we’ll have to decide the difference between a piece of data that I hand to a company to use and make money off of and something that is published. I mean, that’s where ... and maybe you and I aren’t having the exact same conversation here, but ...

Well, I know what the right to be forgotten is, it’s super problematic in this country.

There’s an extent to which what these companies are doing amounts to publication, which by the way is why they need to accept more responsibility as editors, but that’s another story. But as we figure out how these rights are gonna work, we need a national framework to do it and we need a national debate about it. Because now it’s being worked on by handfuls of people who ...

Yeah, in California.

.... are either the most ferocious activists or the most self-interested players. California is ahead of the others, but what they’re doing is, I think it’s questionable whether that really makes sense for the country as a whole. And even then, we won’t have addressed the questions around digital citizenship, where I think a lot of other countries are running circles around us. My favorite example is Estonia, where they — admittedly different scale, 1 million people.

Yeah, it’s a small country.

But you can do everything online and it’s more secure than what we do. Pretty much anything but getting married, you can do online. Their voting is more secure, the way you pay your taxes. And they’ve isolated data in the right ways. And the fact that in 2019 in a country that likes to think of itself as the world’s most advanced, the only way you can authenticate who you are is to get a birth certificate out of a file cabinet in a county office or to, as the button says, “sign in with Google,” “sign in with Facebook.” Authentication is one of the most basic jobs of government. And the closest thing we have to even an ID number is a Social Security number.

Do you think we’ve let these companies take over too much of our digital lives, then? And the government should do this?

Yeah. A lot of these things have arisen because the policy world didn’t figure it out. I don’t think a lot of tech companies want to be adjudicating what hate speech is or ...

Who should?

Look, there’s obviously an extent to which it can be done and that’s the problem with the First Amendment and drawing these lines. But if there’s some line to be drawn, I think it makes sense for us to have a policy framework for these things. Look, every time a company the size of YouTube or Amazon or Google or Facebook makes a corporate policy decision, what they’re really doing is making a public policy decision. But they have none of the apparatus to make public policy. And I don’t think they want to, to some extent.

Except they want the money. They want everything else.

Well of course they do.

Well they’re the public squares while being private squares.

Policy’s supposed to create the guardrails and the ground rules. And then within that, go make as much money as you like. Just don’t hurt anybody.

If there’s one rule that you would push forward, would it be around the gig economy, hate speech?

Well definitely from a labor perspective, I think in the gig economy we have got to recognize that gigs are jobs and people who have gigs are workers. And we don’t do that right now.

And make them employees.

You can either make them employees or you can give them the same benefits as if they were employees. So I think there’s a problem with misclassifying workers as contractors, but I also want to erase some of the magic between whether you’re a contractor or worker in terms of whether you get any benefits.

If you drive seven hours for Uber, then seven divided by 40 is how much that ought to contribute to your sick leave bank. And we can set that up. We can set up a national sick leave bank or nationally administered state level sick leave banks just like we do for unemployment insurance, and it shouldn’t matter whether you’re a contractor and it shouldn’t matter whether you’re full time or part time.

We’ve created these cliffs between full-time work and part-time work, between worker and contractor, that are distinctions without a difference in terms of what it’s like to be a worker, but have huge consequences in terms of your access to the benefits of being in the American economy. And again, coming from a generation that’s going to be working more and more different jobs or gigs over the course of a week, let alone over the course of our lives, we can no longer have a system that rests on the assumption that you’re going to spend your life as a lifelong employee of a single employer that makes sense. And fixing that, including making it possible also for gig workers to unionize, I think is going to be a really important part of how you get the economy ...

You think gig workers should be able to unionize.

Yes. Yes. And it starts again with the understanding that they are, in fact, workers. Look, you can apply tests to figure out whether somebody really is a contractor or not, and if it looks, walks, quacks like an employee then you need to have those people ...

One of the complaints about the tech industry that they have said is that if they’re not allowed to be this innovative and do these things and if they get guardrails, they’re not going to be as innovative as China.

Well, it’s interesting that they’re saying “we should have fewer rules so that we can be more like China.” I get the argument but ...

I know. I agree. I say that to them exactly.

China’s got a totally different approach. And by the way, they’re not going to change their approach because we’re poking them in the eye with tariffs, but that’s another story. Look, the internet started out as this delicate flower that it had to be cultivated and we had to let it see where it was going to go. Now we know where it’s going to go and it’s time to put in the guardrails.

By the way, another thing that our friends in the industry sometimes forget is that this entire industry was literally invented by the federal government.

Yes it was. I remember.

The internet was. So we need to be talking about is, okay, we’re glad for you to innovate. And I do think that some of the anger is directed in a way that’s unfocused, but also these choices that you’re making are affecting all of us and a lot of them shouldn’t be on your plate to begin with.

So let me finish up with this. You take more money from them than other people. Do you feel that that’s a problem or does that make you beholden to them?

Look, if somebody backs my proposal to make sure Uber workers can unionize ...

If it’s an Uber CEO, you might ...

Fine. Great. One of the first things you learn as mayor is to make decisions that will sometimes upset people who’ve supported you, because we’re one community. And my fundraising, I’m very proud of the grassroots character of my fundraising. Over 400,000 donors. Average contribution, I don’t have the number in my head, but it’s a pretty modest number and that’s how we’re powering this campaign. At the end of the day, if somebody supports a progressive vision and wants to help me get it done, then that’s great.

Let’s finish up talking about you. So many people are like, “I love him, I love him, I love him. A gay guy can’t get elected president.” Is that a problem? Do you actually think it’s a problem?

It’s just not true.

I’m going to interrupt my own question, but did you know you were gay when you were going in the military?


You did?


So you “don’t ask, don’t told.”

Right. Yeah, I was under don’t ask, don’t tell for the first part of my military career.

I wanted to be in the military. I had to tell. And it was sort of the Clinton administration time and I couldn’t be in the military because I had to tell.

It’s a lot of weight. It’s just this thing you carry around with you that creates a lot of pressure and a lot of frustration.

So you so much wanted to be in the military.

Really wanted to serve.

How did you make that trade with yourself?

It’s not easy, but I’d been making that trade all my life. Grew up in Indiana, took me years to come out to myself, and then I had a job in the mayor’s office that had to be so busy that I didn’t mind not having much of a personal life, until I deployed. And I realized this is nuts, that I could be killed in action in my early 30s as a grown-ass man in charge of a city with no idea what it’s like to be in love. I’m going to come out.

So I came home, came out, middle of an election year. Not politically ideal. In Indiana, Democratic city, but not that Democratic and very socially conservative. Mike Pence was the governor of my state. And I got 80 percent of the vote. And I think what that tells you is that people can outgrow their prejudices. Or even if people harbor prejudices, in the end, when they’re deciding who they want to lead a city, or for that matter who they want to have the nuclear codes, they’re going to be deciding who’s going to serve them well. And a lot of that other stuff fades away. If you’re a single-issue voter and your single issue is prejudice, you’re probably not one of the voters we’re really looking to win over for the Democrats today.

So in answer to that question, why isn’t it a problem? Because people don’t care? Because I think they do.

People get over it. At least my experience has shown how people get over it. People in Indiana can get over it, I think people across America can get over it. Look, the tide is shifting on this, but it’s not overnight. It’s not like flipping a switch. And just about every major candidate in the race has some historic quality about them that creates disadvantages as well as advantages. But at the end of the day, I think Americans want to know what we’re going do for them, how am I going to make your everyday life different and better.

But you’re also making, you’re also making a part of your campaign with your husband, who’s utterly charming.

Yeah, I’m pretty fond of him.

Especially social media charming. How much do you think about making that a part of it?

The kind of personal rule we adopted for how we go about being a first couple in South Bend, when he came into my life and we were dating and it got serious was we’re going to act like any other couple and we’re going to invite people to treat us like any other couple. And that’s basically what happened. Any candidate who has a great spouse I think wants people to get to know your spouse, and he’s a great asset to the campaign.

And look, I want people to know my story. And it’s important for people to know that part of what motivates me to see how politics affects our everyday lives is my life experience. And it’s the life experience of being sent to war by a US president. And it’s the life experience of belonging to a family where things like ACA and Medicare made a huge difference. And it’s the life experience of starting and ending my day in a marriage that exists by the grace of a single vote on the Supreme Court. I don’t think you have to be gay to see why that matters. But I also don’t think that talking about that reduces me to being the “gay candidate” or the “president of gay America.”

Do you feel you have to be more … more gay? I don’t want to say it. Because not everybody gets the privilege you do, this experience. Mine certainly wasn’t like that and many, many gay and lesbian people across this — and transgender people, especially right now — across this country are suffering in that way. I kind of think of it in sort of the Tim Cook experience in a lot of ways. Who is out but not too out, but stands up for things but not too much. And by the way, I think Tim’s done a lot of amazing things.

You can think yourself into such a corner on this stuff. I just try to be who I am and share my experience. And of course I’m conscious of what it means to LGBT people who come up to me and talk about what it means to them, from young people who felt emboldened to come out to their parents, to people my parents’ age who are in tears because they didn’t think this was possible. But I’m also putting forward positions on LGBTQ equality that I would hope anyone in my party, gay or straight, would embrace. And ultimately I think that each of us brings our experience to the table. Our work experiences, our life experience.

So this is who you are.

This is who I am. And you’re not going to ... There’s always going to be some people who think you’re too gay or not gay or whatever. You can’t let that bog you down. Because the bottom line is, what will I do as president to make American lives better?

It’s not your only identity is what you’re ... It’s my among your identities.


Are you running for vice president? If you don’t ...

No, I’m running for president.

You’re running for president.

You don’t do something like that ... First of all, I’ve never believed in running for an office so that you can have some other office.

Right. It does happen, though.

But especially when we’re talking about the American presidency. And frankly, when we’re talking about what you do in your own life in order to run for the American presidency, you really need to be in it to win. And I’m laying out a vision as well as a sense of urgency. This is not for fun. I believe that we run the risk of handing the presidency to Donald Trump if we try to too hard to play it safe or ignore the profound dynamics that are happening in our country right now.

The changing politics.

The changing politics of changing economy. The pace of change is only going to accelerate. We need to be on top of it. And I present a different message and I’m a different kind of messenger. I’m simply not like the others. Otherwise I would’ve found one of them and worked for them.

Right. And when you’re thinking about Democrats being united … Just today, and I want to end on this, the “squad,” which was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others fighting with Nancy Pelosi about what they should tweet, what they should say. How are you gonna bring everybody together? Because even within the Democrats there’s all these ...

Yeah. That kind of jostling is natural and I think the Speaker can handle it and I think that members can handle themselves and if somebody gets too far out of line or does something that’s unfair, they’ll usually be called out on it. I think at the end of the day we do have to remember that there’s going to be like 24 candidates who are not going to be the nominee. We need to rally around the one person who is, but I think we have seen the consequences of failing to do that.

This is not just saying the wolf is at the gates. The wolf is through the gates, eating our chickens. Our country is in pretty dire shape. The nature of primary season is it’s for surfacing the differences within our party and negotiating them. That’s fine.

But the thing we’ve got to remember is their message is going to be the same no matter what we do. If we adopt a far-left platform, they’re going to say we’re socialists. And if we adopt a conservative platform, they’re going to say we’re socialists. Now is the time for our party to decide what we believe in, what we think is going to work, and then go out and sell it. And there will always be a spectrum around the kind of center of gravity of our party. But the most important thing is to not be jerks about it and to get out there, fight for what we believe in, represent what we care about among one another, and then get out there and take it to the country.

And this a question I asked Michael Bennett yesterday. If you don’t get that, is there a favorite candidate for you?

I admire just about everybody running, but I think I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think that my message is the best one and I’m not like the others.

Have you been surprised by your popularity?

The trajectory of it? Yeah. Obviously we believed in this mission and in the message, but I thought it would be a slower burn until I could break through. Turns out breaking through is not the problem. That being said, even though I get stopped in the street and we may have cracked our way into the top tier and led the field in terms of fundraising last quarter, there’s still a very high ceiling for us because there’s a huge number of Americans who do not follow the blow by blow of this process and are just now ... A lot of people the debates was the first they saw any of us.

Yeah. You got to the, “Wow, he’s adorkable,” level. Now what?

Well, it’s one thing for people to like you, it’s another for people to see why you need to be the nominee and why your presidency would be different than the others. And my job now and basically for the next six, seven months, all the way until the voting begins, is to make clear to Americans how my presidency would be different and better than any of the others.

All right. Who’s your favorite president? Do you have a favorite?

It’s got to be Lincoln. Yeah. And not just because all the reasons Lincoln, but ...

He’s from the Midwest, I hear.

And from the Midwest. In fact, spent a lot of time in Indiana. But the other thing we don’t hear as much about, about Lincoln, is that he understood how important it was to keep an eye on the future. Founding the National Science Foundation, setting up the transcontinental railroad, the land grant colleges. He’s doing these things while the country is in a civil war because he understood that for the country to stay together and grow, you had to be ready for the future in these ways. And that’s another reason I think he should just be a North Star for anybody trying to be a good leader in America.

Yeah. Well let’s hope we don’t have to have a civil war. Anyway, thank you so much. This has been great, and you’re just as adorkable and smart as everyone says you are.

Thanks for having me.

Recode and Vox have joined forces to uncover and explain how our digital world is changing — and changing us. Subscribe to Recode podcasts to hear Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka lead the tough conversations the technology industry needs today.

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