Conspiracy theories about a small, secretive cabal of people – variously referred to as "bankers", "financiers", or "industrialists", which are code words for Jews, Jews, and Jews, respectively – have incredible staying power. Even the most rudimentary public opinion data go back no more than a century, but phenomena like the Anti-Masonic Party or the Know-Nothing movement (based on theories that the Pope was scheming to run the U.S. through an influx of Irishmen and Italians) show that the idea that someone is secretly Running the World is not new in American politics. This idea appeals broadly, too, from simple minded people who boil all of politics down to a Wizard pulling levers behind a curtain to highly educated people who spin elaborate webs of conspiracy centered around an individual (the Koch Brothers, George Soros, the Pope, etc.) or group (i.e., Jews).
Recently I had a conversation with someone highly intelligent who postulated that the difference between presidential candidate Obama and President Obama is so dramatic that the following theory seemed plausible: every new president is summoned to a secret meeting with the (Illuminati / Bilderberg Group / Trilateral Commission / New World Order / Swiss bankers / etc.) who explain to him a dozen topics that are off limits and give him a list things he can't do. Over the years I have heard many people muse about this, many of them logical, astute political observers, in an effort to explain the extraordinarily narrow ideological and functional range in which American politics operate.
Why? Why is this such a popular idea? On the most basic level, conspiracies are popular because people like to believe that the world is more exciting and complex than it really is – sort of an anti-Occam's Razor. It's disappointing to think that most social, economic, and political phenomena have very mundane explanations. But there's an additional explanation that we too often overlook in the U.S. since the uncoupling of income, class, and politics: policy outcomes are remarkably similar (and serve the interests of the same constituents) regardless of who holds political power.
Take, for example, two pieces of health care legislation passed seven years apart. Medicare Part D (2003) came from a Republican Congress and was signed by a Republican president. Obama's health care reform bill came from two chambers with large Democratic majorities. Yet the two pieces of legislation are essentially identical – they are convoluted schemes for taking hundreds of billions of tax dollars and funneling them into the waiting, open palms of private insurance companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers. Part D was a baldly political effort to kiss the asses of the elderly while Obama's bill was a half-hearted effort to follow through with a campaign promise, one that ended up unrecognizable by the time it passed. They look remarkably similar, of course, because the same lobbyists wrote both bills.
While there are meaningful differences between our major parties, the old saying is that there's really only one party in America and it's called Big Business. There is no secret conspiracy or grand explanation, just the grinding, banal reality that our political system and elections are largely theater (Presidential elections are important! For…judicial appointments, I guess!) while the most crucial issues are met with either elite consensus or more likely are off the table altogether.