From propagandist to educationist
Opinion is a set of (individual or group) ideas about the world. Representative democracy wishes each of us to form his ideas on his own, and only afterwards to compare them to other people's ideas. Direct democracy prefers a collective making of ideas. But both think the only way to achieve free thought is to be correctly educated or even better, self-taught, this self being here again preferably collective.
Because of the rise and fall of totalitarianism in the 20th century, the word and the reality of propaganda are now commonly looked down upon. In 1939, S. Chakotin published The Rape of the Masses (translated into English in 1940; new edition by Haskell House, 1982): a disciple of Pavlov, he argued that totalitarian (especially Nazi) methods of mind control were based on the use of emotional urges to create conditioned reflexes. Chakotin was theorizing his own practice: he'd been in charge of anti-fascist propaganda for the German SPD in the early 1930s. He said he appealed to reason, not to the senses as the Nazis did, but that did not prevent him from devising crowd-conditioning techniques for mass meetings. He also designed the "Three Arrows" inside a circle symbol for the Iron Front set up in 1931 as an umbrella organization that aimed to bring together socialists, liberals and (at the beginning) Catholic democrats, but not the KPD, as a bulwark against Hitler. The Three Arrows were later taken up by social-democrats outside Germany, in France for example. What was certainly one of the earliest political logos has been given various interpretations, but it surely hoped to convey an impression of superior power : the show of strength of democratically-organized masses in military attire was meant to have more appeal to the German people than the sheer display of brute force in Nazi rallies. History, however, is not a war of symbols. Chakotin's failure to beat the Nazis at their own game is a sign that Hitler's success was only marginally caused by crowd manipulation techniques. Germany turned to Hitler when the Weimar republic proved incapable of offering any other (radical, reformist or conservative) solution to its crisis.
Ed. Bernays, perhaps the first professional advertiser on public relations, had already described in Propaganda (1928) how an "invisible government" ruled democratic society. He claimed to be able to act on the collective subconscious with a combination of Freudism and crowd psychology, and invented advertising techniques that he sold to big business as well as politicians. In 1954, he was instrumental in destabilizing the (democratic) government of Guatemala that the US finally toppled. In those days, it was still a novelty to "sell" a candidate to the White House like a soft drink, and by similar methods. Unpalatable Bernays was ahead of his time, and heralded ours, when no party dares engage in propaganda: it communicates. Commercials don't sell goods, they sell lifestyles. Parties don't promote programs, they promote meaning and imagery.
Unlike the crude agit-prop of yesteryear, today's most advanced political advertising does not claim to change our views : it presents itself as a helping hand that will allow us to form our own opinions. Advertising now calls itself information, needless to say interactive information. Everything is supposed to be "bottom-up". Modern management has become the ideal model of all relations. The "progressive" boss gives the staff a large margin of self-organization in their work... as long as they reach the objective set by the company. The teacher aims at bringing out his student's autonomy. The psychologist (counsellor, sorry...) repeats to his patient : Be Yourself ! The contradiction remains the same in every field of activity and ends up in more control over staff (particularly thanks to computerization), more bureaucratic guidelines in schools, and more counselling.
How could it be otherwise ? The critique of "education first" (or self-education first) was expressed as early as 1845:
"The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society between two parts, one of which is superior to society." (Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, III)
Nobody believes much of what commercial or political advertising says, yet it works. No-one watching a Peugeot TV commercial regards the new SW 407 as the best estate car ever made, and no voter expects the presidential candidate to keep all his promises, but people buy cars, take part in elections, and that's what matters. The content of the message is far less important than popular participation in and acceptance of the whole system.