Witt’s World: The Pragmatism of Progressive Politics

City Council Member Ari Kagan.
Photo by Tsubasa Berg

When presumptive incoming City Councilmember Ari Kagan (D-Brooklyn) talks about socialism, he recounts a story of a factory he once covered as a journalist with low productivity due in large part to government ownership and bureaucracy.

Kagan told me this story and more over dinner Sunday night following Brooklyn Democratic Party Boss Rodneyse Bichotte’s Cocktail and Cake event celebrating her recent marriage to Democratic District Leader Edu Hermelyn.

Stephen Witt
Stephen Witt (Photo by Tsubasa Berg)

I’ve known Ari for close to 20 years and was happy to see him win the recent primary after losing several local races over the years. I’ve always admired his tenacity.

He’s also the only presumptive member of next year’s City Council class to have been a regular working journalist. Kagan covered the former Soviet Union’s Red Army while constricted in the Soviet military for what I imagine to have been Russia’s version of Stars and Stripes, the longtime publication written for and about the U.S. Armed Forces.

Kagan, originally from Belarus graduated from the Soviet military journalism school in 1988 – two years after the Chernobyl nuclear station explosion. His family was affected by the Chernobyl nuclear explosion with his grandmother, both his parents and his older sister passing away from cancer.

During the Gorbachev era of Glasnost and Perestroyka, he began publishing stories critical of the Soviet Union and Soviet Army, for which he learned he was slated for Siberia – the infamous dissident hell. In 1991 he left the Soviet Army and Communist Party after Soviet troops stormed the TV center in Vilnius, Lithvinia, and gained political refugee status in America shortly thereafter.

But these experiences did not leave Kagan right-leaning like many former Soviet Union immigrants in Southern Brooklyn. I would characterize him politically to be solidly left-of-center.

Breaking bread with Kagan reminded me of a short conversation I had with Public Advocate Jumaane Williams earlier in the evening. Williams arrived at the cocktail and cake party with Brad Lander the presumptive New York City Comptroller come January.

Williams and Lander are high-ranking soldiers on the extreme left Democratic socialist chain. Further up that chain are U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren and ultimately U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, the architect behind the $3.5 trillion federal spending plan intending to increase many additional social and monetary benefits to everyday Americans as well as the government footprint.

Williams asked me what I meant when I say I’m a centrist. My answer was that centrists look at ideas from all political spectrums, and distill the best of them together in a way that best serves many interests and preserves the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

I came home from the event thinking that American-style Democratic Socialism could use somebody like Kagan. He is worldly and understands its practical use as well as the challenges regarding bigger government bureaucracy and its impact on the economy.

His mind is good for political science discourse. Agree or not, it is relatively free of groupthink and populist thoughts and catchphrases that capture so many on social media.