NEW YORK. — New York -- American propaganda has attained a diagnostic dexterity, a technical sophistication, a strategic subtlety in the molding of opinion that Hitler and Stalin never approached. Admittedly, the chief reason for this reflects credit on us: American political life still is based on consent. Hitler and Stalin could simply dispatch to a concentration camp anyone who insisted on holding the wrong opinion.
American propagandists, on the other hand, really do have to persuade. By the time the voter gets to the voting booth, his brain may be pickled in cliches (this year, for example, he will have had the word ''change'' burned into his consciousness by the 75,000 repetitions of Democratic hopefuls), yet his decision finally remains his own.
The latest notable episode in the annals of such persuasion has been the Democratic Party's brilliantly successful effort to ''reposition itself'' (the phrase itself is a fruit of the public-relations revolution in politics) to line up with ''mainstream values.'' Some of the elaborate techniques by which the Democrats have made their move were on display in a recent ABC news story.
First, the program showed some scenes of the Clinton campaign's recent bus tour from New York to St. Louis. Then the anchorwoman, Diane Sawyer, let us know that all was not as it seemed. ''The Clinton caravan,'' she knowingly observed, ''doesn't just happen, it requires advance planning to make it look so spontaneous, and so good on television.'' She introduced correspondent Jim Wooten, who proceeded to give us an apparent behind-the-scenes look at the staging of a whistle stop in a farm setting.
''What looks natural on television is as choreographed as a Broadway play,'' he noted. On camera, there appeared a staff person standing behind a table covered with boxes of strawberries. He is rehearsing the event. ''And Senator Gore and Governor Clinton are there, and they are saying, 'Da-da-da','' we hear him saying, as he points to a spot next to the strawberries. Then we see not just the whistle-stop scene, with bales of hay in front of a barn, but all the television cameras ready to film the scene.
ABC next shows us Fred Keely, at Clinton headquarters in Little Rock. We hear him explain that he has had his people lock the press in their bus momentarily upon arrival because ''the arrival is not The Shot.'' The staged episode near the hay bales is to be ''The Shot.''
Finally, we see Bill Clinton, his wife Hillary, and vice-presidential candidate Al Gore and his wife Tipper all sitting on the bales eating a box lunch. This is The Shot, but by now we are undeceived. We may even feel superior, for a moment, to all of those who saw only the staged scene, without Mr. Wooten's unmasking of it.
We may feel this, at any rate, until we remember that we are seeing it all on ABC News, and that just as the Clinton campaign has decided to refuse to let the news people see Mr. Clinton arrive at the whistle stop, so it has decided to permit them to film Fred Keely explaining this.
In truth, then, ''The Shot'' -- one more calculated by far than the scene on the hay bales -- is really Fred Keely, explaining to the voters (for Mr. Keely, we can be sure, has not suffered a temporary mental blackout and forgotten that ABC News reaches millions of voters) how cleverly he has set out to shape their impressions.
Mr. Wooten's unmasking seemed to invite a second unmasking. In this one, we would see his cameras filming the cameras filming the scene. We would hear the Clinton staff members rehearsing the scene in which they rehearsed the hay-bale scene. And we would hear Fred Keely's explanation of why he thought explaining his techniques of press manipulation to a television reporter would benefit his candidates. That unmasking, however, would of course require a further one, which would require another and so forth.
We can still wonder why the Clinton people thought their explanations of their techniques would help his campaign. If the magician explains his tricks, isn't the effect ruined? One effect -- the charm of the foursome sitting on the hay bale -- was indubitably ruined, but another -- the shrewdness of the manager who has contrived that scene -- was created. Yes, the Clinton campaign seems to be saying, we are deceiving you, but look how skillfully we do it.
In this case, at least, the ''mainstream values'' being embraced were not our nostalgia for the charming rural life of middle America but our seeming admiration for the immensely elaborate and refined means by which we continue to be manipulated by people in high places.
Jonathan Schell is a columnist for Newsday.