If you’ve been reading the papers, watching television or surfing the Internet over the past four months, you’ll know The Secret: Rhonda Byrne’s bestselling New Age DVD and book promoting “The Law of Attraction”–that as a man (or woman) thinketh, so shall he or she be. Nothing much is new in that idea, which has a several-thousand-year history running from Hinduism right into Christian parables featuring lilies.

What’s new is the magnitude and velocity of The Secret‘s success. With 3.8 million copies of the $23.95 hardcover in print in the United States alone, and an estimated 1.5 million copies of the $34.95 DVD sold, Byrne’s rate of sales is nearly unrivaled in the annals of self-help snake oil. And these figures don’t include the $4.95 digital downloads of the film from the Secret website. Even among self-help classics such as M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled (10 million copies sold over three decades) and Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life (22 million sold over five years), Byrne’s enterprise promises to break records for sales rates if not totals. The book is on bestseller lists in the United States, Australia (Byrne’s home), England and Ireland, and some thirty translations are slated.

There’s no problem, large or small, for which this bestseller doesn’t claim to have an answer. Mired in debt? No problem, just start visualizing checks and paste a phony $1 million bill on the ceiling above your bed (so you’ll see it first thing in the morning). Suffering from cancer? Skip the chemo and focus on healing thoughts. Need a parking place? Picture yourself pulling into that perfect unmetered spot. And while you’re at it, get yourself a late-model car. The universe, The Secret asserts, is akin to a mail-order business and “your job is to declare what you would like to have from the catalog.”

Many commentators have attributed Byrne’s success to viral marketing savvy: She took the novel approach of launching her message as a film that went direct to DVD and online download before going into print. Clever art direction added to the film’s appeal: Parchment backdrops and a red wax seal evoke The Da Vinci Code’s secrecy. Certainly Byrne’s know-how as a former television producer has served her well. With video clips at the ready and a cast of more than a dozen self-help gurus available for interview, The Secret has been a talk show producer’s dream. Television coverage, from The Oprah Winfrey Show to Larry King Live to Nightline and 20/20, continues apace.

Winfrey in particular has championed The Secret, claiming that her own success is living proof of the Law of Attraction (with an uncharacteristic obliviousness to the trailblazers of the feminist and civil rights movements who preceded her). In the wake of Oprah’s endorsement, sales skyrocketed. According to the Washington Post, Nielsen Book Scan reported that weekly sales of The Secret jumped from 18,000 to 101,000 copies in the week after the first Oprah show endorsing the book and to a staggering 190,000 copies the week after the second program aired.

Much of The Secret‘s success can be chalked up to the mass media’s infatuation with Byrne & Co.’s self-congratulatory message: that those who are well-off deserve their success–after all, they attracted it. But what about the unfortunate corollary that would necessarily apply to those who are ill, impoverished, dispossessed or worse? What about The Secret‘s more egregious claims–that diseased thinking causes one to attract cancer and that positive thinking can cure it; that the children of Darfur attracted the starvation their families are facing with their wrong thinking (yes, you heard that correctly from Secret contributor Bob Proctor on Nightline); and that Jessica Lunsford, the 9-year-old Florida girl who was buried alive by sexual predator John Couey, brought her gruesome fate on herself (according to compassionate Secret “metaphysician” Joe Vitale on Larry King Live). The Secret‘s contributors even claim that the antiwar movement causes war and, my personal favorite, that looking at fat people will make you fat.

To her credit, Winfrey has stepped back from her wholehearted endorsement, posting a notice on her website recommending that people with cancer not forgo treatment. The Law of Attraction is only one law, notes the revision. But with all the obvious nonsense in The Secret‘s message, why are people buying it? Are Americans (and the people of several dozen other countries) living testimony to that P.T. Barnum adage about the birthrate for suckers? Probably not. Simple desperation renders people susceptible to all manner of false promises.

For clues about the source of Secret aficionados’ despair one need look no further than the film, where within minutes of the hocus-pocus opening sequence, Proctor asks, “Why is it that 1 percent of the people earn 96 percent of the world’s money? The answer is simple–they know the secret.” Vignette after vignette features a mailbox filling and refilling with bills and late-payment notices. Viewers are advised to imagine checks arriving instead!

The real secret is that Americans earn less per week (in dollars adjusted for inflation) than they did in 1972, when real wages peaked for the average worker. The pain of lost earning power, a shredded social safety net and ever-expanding wealth inequality has been eased somewhat by easy credit, as has been masterfully demonstrated in two recent releases–James D. Scurlock’s Maxed Out and Danny Schechter’s In Debt We Trust. But Americans are feeling the pinch, and the magical thinking that one can simply “ask-believe-receive” has a powerful appeal. While subscribing to The Secret‘s fantasy of effortless wealth and omnipotence requires that one buy into its darker victim-blaming corollaries, that seems to be a price millions are willing to pay rather than concede that their lives are subject to forces beyond their control. Dire circumstances call for magical solutions.

During the last Gilded Age, another bestseller seized the national imagination. Ralph Waldo Trine’s 1897 In Tune With the Infinite promised that as long as one was in the cosmic flow, one could expect wealth and well-being. Henry Ford was a Trine fan, and credited the inspirational writer with sustaining him during his arduous efforts to extract more labor power from his workforce. New Age thinking, like the New Thought that preceded it, provides a ready justification for the vast inequalities in the distribution of resources. But more than that, it offers the hope that you, too, may be provided for–just as long as you stay positive and hold on to your dreams.

That’s where progressives can take a tip from the success of self-help fads and focus on offering Americans some measure of hope, as Stephen Duncombe argues so eloquently in his recent book Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. Instead of “ask-believe-receive,” Duncombe’s message can be summed up as “dream-connect-mobilize.” Duncombe reminds us that we have to win hearts, not just minds, and that the secret to the success of a newly revived progressive movement will be tapping into people’s aspirations and imaginations. There’s a secret worth uncovering.