Most Americans are familiar with the basic policy platforms of the United States’ two major parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. When seeking to understand the political philosophy and platform of a minor party, it can be helpful to compare it to one of the major parties. The Libertarian Party is the nation’s third-largest political party and its largest minor party. This guide will compare and contrast the political philosophies, histories, and platforms of the Libertarian and Democratic parties.
The Libertarian Party is based on the political philosophy of Libertarianism. Similarly, the Republican Party is based on the political philosophy of Republicanism. But then what philosophy is the Democratic Party based on? The answer isn’t “democraticism,” as this pattern might suggest, but the principles of liberal democracy.
Starting with the Libertarian Party, Libertarianism is a political philosophy that centers the preservation of individual liberties and limited government. The central idea of individual liberty is that individuals should be able to have control over their own choices. This mainly plays out in the realm of economics and social issues — for example, in how much an individual is taxed (meaning how their money is allocated) and what kind of lifestyle they pursue. This freedom comes with a strong belief in personal responsibility. Similarly, Libertarianism emphasizes the importance of limiting state power and government intervention.
Liberal democracy, by contrast, is a political philosophy that brings together the ideas of representative democracy, individual rights and freedoms, and a market economy. Liberal democracy seeks a balance between government intervention and personal freedoms. The preservation of civil liberties is important to the ideology of liberal democracy.
The Democratic Party is also often associated with the political ideology of progressivism. Progressivism encourages reform, calling on the government to take an active role in addressing social, economic, and political issues.
It is important to note that within any political party or ideological camp, individual people have different opinions and stances. Not everyone who subscribes to the principles of Libertarianism or liberal democracy will act and behave the same way.
The Democratic Party is significantly older than the Libertarian Party in the United States. The roots of the Democratic Party reach back to 1792, when the supporters of Thomas Jefferson first organized as a political party. This party was first called the Republican or Jeffersonian Republican Party, then adopted the name Democratic-Republicans in 1798, and finally became known simply as the Democrats during the era of Andrew Jackson.
Though the Democratic Party has been around for a long time — in fact, it’s the oldest political party in the United States — its policies and platform have changed greatly over the years. Initially, the Democratic Party set itself up in opposition to the Federalist Party. In contrast to the Federalists, the Democratic Party supported the idea of a decentralized government with limited power.
Here are some key landmarks on the Democratic Party’s journey from 1792 to 2023:
Election of Andrew Jackson, 1828: Andrew Jackson was the first officially Democratic president of the United States. During Jackson’s time in office, the Democratic Party took on a more populist stance.
Civil War, 1861-1865: Leading up to the Civil War, the Democratic Party became divided over the question of slavery and split into a northern and southern faction.
Transition to Progressivism, 1896-1920s: The Democratic Party faced a difficult split once again at the end of the nineteenth century, this time over Populism and the free-silver movement. Over the next few decades, the party moved through a rocky transition toward a more progressive ideology.
New Deal, 1933: Democratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt is known for establishing the New Deal, a progressive set of policies seeking to address the challenges of the Great Depression. During this period, the Democratic Party became linked with social welfare policies.
Civil Rights Movement, 1960s: The Democratic Party became further associated with progressive policies during the Civil Rights Movement, when Democratic president Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Affordable Care Act, 2010: Democratic president Barack Obama, the first African American president of the United States, signed the Affordable Care Act (colloquially known as Obamacare), establishing widespread healthcare reform.
Compared to this long history, the Libertarian Party has a fairly succinct origin story. The Libertarian Party was established in 1971 in Westminster, Colorado. It was designed to unite Americans who felt excluded by the two-party system of Democrats and Republicans. In 1972, the Libertarian Party endorsed its first presidential candidate, John Hospers. By 1980, the party had gained ballot access in all 50 states.
Since then, Libertarian candidates have regularly run for president, though never successfully. Recently, Gary Johnson ran for president in 2016, and Jo Jorgensen ran in 2020. As the presidential election in 2024 approaches, several Libertarian candidates are competing for the presidential nomination. Libertarian candidates also frequently run for office — and win — at the local level of government.
How do the policy platforms of Libertarians and Democrats compare? Let’s walk through some of the main priorities of Libertarians and Democrats — remembering that individuals within each group will have different viewpoints. A diversity of opinions exists within both political parties.
The Libertarian and Democratic parties differ greatly in their approaches to the proper role of government. The Libertarian Party advocates for the government to play a limited role in the lives of citizens and in economic affairs. Most Libertarians favor limiting government regulations.
The Democratic Party, on the other hand, generally supports the government playing a more active role in addressing societal issues. The party advocates for government regulations that help to reduce inequality, establish social safety nets, and protect consumers and the environment from harm. The role of government is one area where Libertarians and Democrats have contrasting views.
The two parties’ approaches to economic policy-making align with their stances on the role of government. The Libertarian Party endorses free-market capitalism and economic deregulation, while the Democratic Party supports a mixed-market economy with some government intervention.
Practically, this plays out in important ways. Libertarians generally advocate for the reduction or elimination of taxation, while many Democrats hold up progressive taxation as a way to combat income inequality. Democrats also support social programs more than most Libertarians do. According to the Libertarian mindset, the way to reach economic prosperity is not through government interference but through individual economic freedom.
The Libertarian and Democratic parties align more closely on social and cultural issues. Both parties tend to support liberal values, with some variations between them.
Both the Libertarian Party and Democratic Party support LGBTQ+ rights and marriage equality, for instance. The philosophies behind this stance differ, though, and this is a good example of how the differences between the parties’ ideologies operate in real life. Let’s compare the framing of the same issue through each political lens.
The Libertarian Party’s official platform approaches the issue of LGBTQ+ rights this way:
“Sexual orientation, preference, gender, or gender identity should have no impact on the government’s treatment of individuals, such as in current marriage, child custody, adoption, immigration, or military service laws. Government does not have the authority to define, promote, license, or restrict personal relationships, regardless of the number of participants. Consenting adults should be free to choose their own sexual practices and personal relationships. Until such time as the government stops its illegitimate practice of marriage licensing, such licenses must be granted to all consenting adults who apply.”
Take close note of that last sentence, and compare this viewpoint to this excerpt from the Democratic Party’s official 2020 platform:
“We will fight to enact the Equality Act and at last outlaw discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in housing, public accommodations, access to credit, education, jury service, and federal programs. We will work to ensure LGBTQ+ people are not discriminated against when seeking to adopt or foster children, protect LGBTQ+ children from bullying and assault, and guarantee transgender students’ access to facilities based on their gender identity.”
The Democratic Party’s statement goes on to address other areas of LGBTQ+ rights, including the banning of conversion therapies and addressing homelessness among LGBTQ+ youth. The Libertarian and Democratic parties often express similar views in support of drug decriminalization.
On some other social issues, Libertarians and Democrats tend to differ, as Democrats often prefer a greater amount of government involvement to encourage inclusivity and reduce discrimination. Another area of difference is the issue of abortion. While the Democratic Party has taken a firm stance in support of women’s right to reproductive healthcare, the Libertarian Party’s platform does not include an official stance on abortion.
In the realm of foreign policy, there is some overlap between the Libertarian and Democratic parties. Both parties emphasize the importance of diplomacy. However, Libertarians go farther than Democrats in this area, urging the nation to take a non-interventionist approach to foreign policy and avoid entanglements abroad. The Libertarian non-aggression principle comes heavily into play here.
Democrats are often more willing to employ military force when appropriate. The Democratic Party also values international cooperation and the value of alliances with other countries. As always, it is important to recognize that individual people within the parties have different views on these issues.
Having explored the above policy issues in depth, here is a simple breakdown of the main similarities and differences between Democrats and Libertarians:
Certain social and cultural issues, including marriage equality and drug decriminalization
The importance of diplomacy in foreign policy
The proper amount of government intervention, both politically and economically
Certain social and cultural issues, including abortion
The value of non-aggression in foreign policy
Given the difference in the amount of time each political party has been around and the current dominance of the two-party system, it makes sense that the Democratic Party has played a much more visible role than the Libertarian Party in shaping American politics. The Democratic Party has seen 19 presidential candidates elected into office, including the current president Joe Biden, while the United States has yet to elect a Libertarian president.
The Libertarian Party has still impacted American politics in a variety of ways, however. The Libertarian Party has influenced the thinking of many Republicans and Democrats who have been elected to office, with certain members of Congress leaning more strongly towards a Libertarian philosophy. Rand Paul, a Republican senator representing Kentucky, is a notable example of a politician who leans toward Libertarian values.
As the United States’ largest minor party, the Libertarian Party also plays a role in drawing attention to independent politics and the possibilities offered by third parties. The Libertarian Party continues to offer voters an alternative to the two-party system.
Another potentially helpful way to compare the Libertarian and Democratic parties is to assess how each party’s opponents critique their policies and actions. Once again, different people will have different challenges to each party’s platforms.
Lack of practicality: Many critics argue that Libertarian ideals would not hold up under the complexity and pressure of real-world governance.
Lack of a social safety net: Critics also point to the ways that Libertarian policies could leave minority groups and disadvantaged Americans vulnerable.
Too idealistic: Some disagree with Libertarianism’s high view of personal responsibility, believing real people would fail to live up to its standards.
Lack of ideological consistency: Some point to the wide range of views that politicians within the Democratic Party hold, arguing that the party could govern more effectively with a more consistent platform.
Corporate influence: Like the Republican Party, the Democratic Party has faced criticism for being disproportionately influenced by corporate interests.
Failure to follow through: Critics may note that Democratic candidates do not always live up to the high standards of their progressive rhetoric, often failing to address systemic issues.
Overall, the Libertarian Party and the Democratic Party have a variety of core differences, from their origins and histories to their main policy priorities. However, they also share notable similarities, especially within the sphere of social and cultural issues.
To keep learning and explore the similarities and differences between the Libertarian and Republican parties, check out this companion guide.