If you are familiar with Roman history, then the phrase might immediately make sense.
Bread and Circuses.
Food and entertainment.
Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.- Juvenal, Satire 10.77–81
What does this mean and how does it apply to modern times? Directly quoting Wikipedia, "Juvenal here makes reference to the Roman practice of providing free wheat to Roman citizens as well as costly circus games and other forms of entertainment as a means of gaining political power." This was written within 100 years of Rome becoming an autocratic state.
The parallels to modern life in the US is rather disturbing. What has happened to society in the last 40, 50, 60 years? People have become completely self absorbed and incapable of focusing on anything of significance. Entertainment dominates all public media. We care solely about who won the last major sporting event, we know all the intimate details of Hollywood's residents, and the number of people who are unemployed, on welfare, and receiving food stamps has never been higher (2008: 28 million people @ $35M; 2012: 46 million people @ $75M). Try to talk politics, religion, or other serious topics of discussion and people literally shut down. While in the background, we have a machine that is moving into high gear that is in the process of redefining this country.
The citizens of the US are happily letting the government control their lives. Parents afraid to have the "sex talk" and wanting their kids to "just be happy" are becoming more and more willing to let public schools define the moral compass for their children. Obamacare, aka Affordable Care Act, is redefining the government's knowledge of the intimate details of your personal life (HIPAA limits medical institutions to only sharing information as necessary to provide treatment... and the government will be one of those parties now...) but at least they have a safety net if they lose their job! Let's not forget that the NSA is acting in complete violation of the 4th Amendment by gaining information about every single phone call, email, credit card transaction, and who knows what else for every single American they can all in the name of "security" (and a surprising number of Americans have no idea that is a bad idea).
Americans, in general, know more about what is happening on their favorite reality tv program than they do about the government's activities. Worse, I think they prefer to stay ignorant. People have been turned into mindless zombies. Everyone gets a trophy at school! Don't have an opinion because you might offend someone! Go to college to get a useless degree! ... My vote doesn't count... both parties are the same... I can't do anything about it... what difference will it make...
Apathy is going to be the downfall of this country. Unless the populace takes notice that the government is becoming a monster soon, it will be too late. The Judiciary and the Legislative branches will become pawns of the Executive... Look at FISC... Look at the rumors that Justice Roberts was bullied into changing his vote about the constitutionality of the ACA... Look at congress's inability to pass a budget and yet the government keeps on functioning...
Bread and Circuses. Keeping the people distracted by reality television shows, nude celebrities, and great sporting events. Giving us "free" health care, food stamps, welfare, 99+ weeks of unemployment benefits. Providing amnesty to all those illegal immigrants. Taking our freedoms. Taking our privacy. Becoming our masters.
They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.