Heading into 2020, Democrats are desperate to reconnect with the working class. All the candidates — from Biden to Bernie and everyone in between — vow they know how, offering plan after plan.
Here’s a simpler solution: Watch “Judge Judy.”
About to enter her 24th season this fall, Judy Sheindlin sits at the top of the ratings in daytime television: More than 10 million people watch her each day, a remarkable track record for a show that’s been on the air that long.
During my 13 years as a programming executive at CBS, I worked closely with Sheindlin and her producers. I came to understand her audience and why viewers relate to her. Democrats could do worse than look to Sheindlin’s show for insight into the lives of working people, what they value and what they reject.
Her audience of ten million includes second-shift workers, single mothers, seniors — people who live paycheck to paycheck, with the most to lose from shifting financial and social norms: stagnant schools, stagnant wages, broken families.
Research shows most viewers of “Judge Judy” and other daytime shows lean Democratic and are overwhelmingly female. But they’re not the celebrated suburban voters candidates chase after. They don’t shop in department stores (they can’t afford that kind of luxury), and most only have about $100 a week to spend on groceries for their family. Despite these challenges, they describe themselves — by a wide margin — as “resilient” and “pro-active.”
They value a code of responsibility that’s close to the old Bill Clinton line, “If you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll be rewarded.” Macro issues like climate change and even immigration aren’t top of mind; getting through each day is what matters most. That outlook cuts across race, gender and age. What ties this broad audience together is the one thing Americans don’t like to talk about: economic class.
Enter “Judge Judy.” In each 30-minute episode, the trials, tribulations and concerns of working people are placed center stage. Producers draw their cases from small claims courts, usually the only kind of court an everyday person can access. No lawyers are required for these disputes that typically involve a few hundred dollars, making it a democratic system and a rare window into class concerns.
Litigants walk onto the show’s courtroom set, and into a strict list of Sheindlin guidelines: The bad guys are people scamming government programs, con artists preying on hard-working parents, parents who coddle their kids, young adults who act like children, and men who shirk their obligations to family.
Fewer good guys are on display in her courtroom, but you can find them in women who leave bad relationships, families helping each other across generations, and low-wage workers who attend night school and move up the economic ladder by sheer force of will.
Sheindlin spent years on the Manhattan family court bench, where she developed a strong resistance to tall tales and thin excuses. On TV, she shows no patience for the emotional back-story of why someone lied or left or let someone down. Try to hustle money for “pain and suffering” from her, and all you get is pain in return. She just needs to know you broke the law, you did the wrong thing, and you didn’t try to make it right.
In many ways, “Judge Judy” is a daily dose of wish fulfillment for working families, a place where the issues and the answers are clear. Sheindlin sends the hard-nosed but reassuring message that — even in a world her viewers suspect is wobbling off its axis — certain things remain unshakeable: the law, common sense, and the bright moral line between right and wrong.
Millions of people a day — from every part of the country, rural and urban, Rust Belt and Sun Belt — watch “Judge Judy,” nod their heads in approval, then leave the break room to get back to work. They give her the one thing in their lives they can never get back: their time.
Democrats want their time and attention, too. The party and its presidential candidates are working hard to win their trust, developing plans and programs that try to say: “I get you.”
A 76-year-old jurist from Brooklyn in a black robe on a studio stage has been getting them for nearly a quarter-century. She might be worth a look and a listen.
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.