We can go all the way back to James Madison to witness a founder already afraid that genuine democracy would be an unacceptable threat to the moneyed elite. Madison struggled to provide “safeguards” to democracy that would ensure the masses could never vote on certain things. Some of the limitations were good, others not so good.
With the advent of mass media it became possible to get into the minds of individual citizens and convince them that the values of Hollywood and Wall Street were actually their own. People became accustomed to equate democracy with capitalism. Citizenship was reduced to voting in elections and keeping the economy strong. The strength of the economy was no longer measured by the health and prosperity of the people, it was measured artificially by the elites themselves.
I don’t believe evil rich people meet secretly in hidden groves to scheme how to rob the masses, but I do believe there develops a cultural attitude that assumes the public is immature and irrational and that the upper classes are especially suited to govern them. With such undemocratic attitudes instilled in the masses, conspiracies are unnecessary. These cultural and political attitudes become the norm simply because it is the rich who own the media and who fund the universities. We literally begin to see the world through their eyes.
As people are “educated” they inherit and internalize the legitimacy of a cultural pecking order. It becomes an unquestioned truth that surrendering responsibility to free markets and trying to solve all our problems through them is perfectly rational and healthy. In the end, “educated” and “successful” people are not even aware of these anti-democratic assumptions, much less do they question them. Like an infant in the children’s seat of a car playing with a toy steering wheel, they become content living in a simulated democracy.