How is the Libertarian Party different from the Democratic Party in America?

…as answered on Quora….

The Democratic Party is the oldest organized political faction in the United States. It has been wildly successful.

The Libertarian Party is the oldest minor party in the country to have maintained an active and culturally significant presence on the margins of politics. By major party standards, it has been wildly unsuccessful, but by minor party standards, it has been bizarrely persistent. On the face of it, it is a testament to a segment of Americans desperately trying to bear witness to the possibility that freedom, and not “equality” or “security” or “nationalism,” might matter most.

Yet, ideologically, the Libertarian Party has some fascinating historical links with early Democratic Party ideology.

Libertarians sport more similarities to the ideas of Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Clubs than to the nationalist ideas of the so-called Federalists. Libertarians are anti-nationalist, free-trade, limited-government activists, not Big Bank-supporting, big-business-subsidizing protectionists in the manner of the mercantilist Alexander Hamilton, the chief theorist of the early Federalist Party.

In the 1830s, an anti-establishment faction grew out of the Democratic Party, greatly influencing (if for a brief time) the Jacksonians. The faction was active in many northern states, especially in New York where its activists, led by newspaper editorialist William Leggett, set up a minor party, the Equal Rights Party. While the party was short-lived, the movement was quite influential, and a challenge to the establishment. In a memorable incident where these “workingmen” partisans attempted to gain control of the New York Democratic Party, the establishment turned off the lights to prevent the political change. Yes, deplatforming, 1830s-style. The Equal Rights activists who had gathered en masse were not to be dissuaded, though. They struck their matches — a new self-igniting device sold as the “Loco-Foco” — and lit their candles and carried on with the election of officers decidedly not in line with the insiders of Tammany.

The New York Times mocked them, called them “Loco-Focos.” The monicker stuck. And for a brief time — the time in which Alexis de Tocqueville was poking around in the States — the Loco-Focos dominated political discussion. Ultimately, they mainly affected corporate law, taking away the overtly political and favoritist aspect to gaining corporate status, but also had a huge impact in Rhode Island and a few other states. Nevertheless, their general anti-government stance was not appreciated by ambitious men. And then when they moved to abolitionism, they were successfully marginalized forever.

Modern libertarians are indeed echoes of that Loco-Foco Moment, as Brian Doherty mentioned in his book on the modern libertarian movement’s most successful politician, Dr. Ron Paul:

The particular combination of beliefs that animates Paul and his fans has not been prominent on the American scene since the Locofocos. You don’t remember them, but they were the New York–based, radically laissez-faire wing of the Jacksonian Democrat coalition during the President Martin Van Buren era of the 1830s–’40s. Like Paul, for them, the separation of government from banking was their primary goal (as well as the elimination of non-hard money). But aspects of Paul and Paulism appear and reappear across our nation’s history, like ghosts haunting the battlefield where the American dream has been slaughtered in slow motion since shortly after it was born.

Though modern libertarians may find some commonality in 19th century leaders like Van Buren and Grover Cleveland, they see little of value in the party from the racist, progressivist warmonger Woodrow Wilson onwards. The modern Democratic Party has utterly betrayed its Jeffersonian and Loco-Foco roots. Most of the current crop of the Democracy’s presidential contenders are pimping for socialism, of all things, which to a libertarian appears just as bad (or even worse) than imperialistKu Kluxer, or Nazi.

William Leggett, chief theorist of the Locofocos.

Brian Doherty, Ron Paul’s rEVOLution (2012)

Brion McClanahan, How Alexander Hamilton Screwed Up America (2017), with a foreword by Ron Paul

Anthony Comegna, “The Loco-Foco Movement: A Lost Chapter in the History of Liberalism, Part One” (2016)

Thomas C. Leonard, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era (2016)