Princeton’s Julian Zelizer Remembers *Family Ties*


On the evening of Roseanne’s Barr’s racist remarks, Princeton University historian Julian Zelizer remembered a television show that “exemplified the best of American politics.”  Here is his take on Alex P. Keaton and his “Family Ties”:

…The star of a television show — one that has been said to capture the economic anxiety of the President’s base — just let off a tirade that captured the worst kind of social and cultural hatred that has taken root since the 2016 presidential election. If the tweets of the star are combined with the substance of the show, the rebooted “Roseanne” really does capture a troubling part of what President Trump’s politics has centered on: Talk of economics with one breath, and then use another to unleash on different social groups.

This on-screen portrayal of today’s politics stands in stark contrast to the Gary David Goldberg’s hit show “Family Ties,” which in the 1980s was the sitcom seen as the best expression of the Reagan Revolution that was transforming American politics. In the show, which debuted in September of 1982, Michael J. Fox played Alex P. Keaton, the son of Baby Boomer liberals whose world view had been shaped by the 1960s.

Fox’s character is a walking poster boy for President Reagan’s free market and hawkish anti-communist values, constantly fighting with his parents about their ideals. “When else could a boy with a briefcase become a national hero?” Goldberg recalled about the 1980s.

In one episode Alex got mad at his mother Elyse for questioning the need to produce so many hydrogen bombs: “From the beginning of time, there’s been weapons, and there’s always been a fringe element who’ve overreacted. I’m sure that even in the early days, there were bleeding-heart cavemen running around with signs that said ‘Make love, not clubs.'”

Or there was the scene in which, during a job interview after college, Alex told his interviewer that he had a “killer instinct for cash. A lust for travelers’ checks. Now sure, everyone who comes through this door loves money. But do they dream about it? Do they fantasize about it? Do they roll around naked in it? I do.”

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3 thoughts on “Princeton’s Julian Zelizer Remembers *Family Ties*

  1. I have been a participant in a Christian forum online. I stick out like a sore thumb because I don’t praise the greatest, hardest working President of all time. For a few other reasons as well.
    I was banned today because another member started a thread that asked why it was such a big deal about Roseanne Barr’s twitter posting and the “planet of the apes baby” post.
    I, as calmly as I could, explained the history behind that kind of slur. I got a lot of pushback from the original writer. Then I wrote that I would be very disappointed if my fellow Christians didn’t take a stand against what I called an ugly, vile, racist post by Ms Barr.
    One did at first then back tracked. A bunch others started minimizing her post and coming up with examples of insults from “the other side”.
    Then I got a message from a moderator that I have been banned for “antagonizing others and promoting a liberal agenda”.
    I have been a believer since 1978 and am 64 years old. I have never felt so disconnected from the greater body of Christ in America.


    • Thanks for sharing this, Jeff. So sad and I am sorry you had to go through this. We don’t have a lot of commentators here, but you are always welcome to weigh-in. –John


      • Thanks.
        By the way, four of my children are Messiah grads.
        I am not sure if any took one of your courses.


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