Video Duration 25 minutes 13 seconds

What defines the Democrats?

As the US presidential race enters its final leg, we ask if the Democratic Party is pragmatic or progressive.

For the Republicans, the Democrats are the party of big government, working to divide the US through class warfare.

There is a difference [between Democrats and Republicans] although I think it is incremental and insufficient …it’s just that it’s relatively small given the differences that Americans want, which is why with both parties what you’ve seen is a more ‘in sorrow’ than ‘in anger’ approach.”

– Gary Younge, a US-based columnist for The Guardian

Paul Ryan, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, recently told the Republican National Convention: “After four years of government trying to divide up the wealth, we will get America creating wealth again …. The choice is whether to put hard limits on economic growth, or hard limits on the size of government, and we choose to limit government.”

But the Democrats argue that they are the party that will rebuild the US economy and the American dream from the bottom up.

Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, Texas, told the Democratic National Convention this week: “It’s a choice between a country where the middle class pays more so that millionaires can pay less, or a country where everybody pays their fair share so we can reduce the deficit and create the jobs of the future.

“It’s a choice between a nation that slashes funding for our schools and guts Pell grants, or a nation that invests more in education. And it’s a choice between a politician who rewards companies that ship American jobs overseas or a leader who brings jobs back home.”

Americans are schizoid about what they want from government. They want government to do less except when it’s helping them – then they want it to do more. They want the rich to pay more but they don’t like the idea of taxes either.”

– Michael Kazin, a US historian

Critics from the left, however, say that aside from a few social issues the two parties are barely distinguishable.

The Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, kicked off earlier this week, days after the end of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida.

Campaigns are now in the final stretch in the race for the White House which culminates in November.

So, who exactly are the Democrats? Are they pragmatic or progressive?

Joining the Inside Story: US 2012 discussion with presenter Shihab Rattansi are guests: Gary Younge, a US-based columnist for The Guardian; Rocky Anderson, the Justice Party presidential candidate; and Michael Kazin, a historian and an expert on US politics and social movements.

“There is a huge disconnect [within the Democratic Party itself]. This is a matter of having a far-right party and a right-of-centre party nowadays. There’s not even a centrist party let alone a left-of-centre major party.”

Rocky Anderson, the Justice Party presidential candidate


  • Taxes – it calls for an extension of the middle class tax cuts for the 98 per cent of families who make less than $250,000 a year
  • Health care – it trumpets the passing of the affordable health care law, which the Republicans want to repeal
  • Abortion – the party “unequivocally” supports the Roe v Wade decision that made abortion legal.
  • Gay rights – supports for the first time same-sex marriage
  • Immigration – strongly committed to comprehensive reform, something Obama failed to implement in his first term
  • Foreign policy – calls for a “responsible end to the war in Afghanistan” but, like Obama, is vague on specifics
  • Defence – suggests support for a further reduction in the US nuclear weapons stockpile and does not rule out cuts to the military budget
  • Social – the platform document mentions middle class 44 times but only makes reference to the poor on three occasions


  • Bill Clinton – seen as moving the party to the right, instituted NAFTA legislation in 1994, imposed lifetime limits on welfare and work obligation, instituted the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy
  • Jimmy Carter – national energy policy included conservation, was criticised by the Republicans despite centrist policies, reinstated mandatory registration for the draft, deregulated the airline industry in 1978
  • Lyndon B Johnson – pushed through civil rights legislation, instituted ‘great society’ social programmes, created Medicare and Medicaid, and funded public broadcasting
  • John F Kennedy – seen as liberal by many Democrats, created the Peace Corps and vowed to end racial discrimination, was slow to support the civil rights movement
  • Franklin D Roosevelt – instituted a ‘new deal’ during the Great Depression focused on helping the poor and putting people to work, imposed regulation to prevent a repeat of the depression, was criticised and accused of socialism for the ‘new deal’ programmes