Ongoing left debates regarding Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign are frequently characterized by a shared premise. Whether arguing, for instance, that Sanders is dismissive of race or countering that his emphasis on economics necessarily entails anti-racism, both sides tend to assume that Sanders would be able to meaningfully advance his politics if he were to become president. That is, both sides generally presuppose the liberal notion of pluralism, which conceives of a neutral and malleable state that can be shaped and reshaped by those who govern it.
The history of the presidency illustrates a very different story, one in which the political party and personal inclinations of presidents (let alone candidates) are generally irrelevant to how they wield power. Presidents – whether Constitutional Law professor/community organizers or religious zealots with MBAs – historically have advanced the objective interests of the nation-state, prioritizing its international power and the profitability of its economy above all other considerations. Notwithstanding cogent left criticisms of Sanders, the key question is not whether Sanders is a phony but what, if elected president, he will in fact be sworn to do. In other words, what are presidents?