Because the United States is a democracy, it is natural to assume that policymakers have a good grasp of public opinion. After all, top officials are elected and are widely presumed to reflect majority sentiments. Also, once in office, policymakers are presumably motivated to understand public opinion to make it easier for them to achieve their policy goals. But do policymakers necessarily know what the public thinks on most issues? There are reasons to be skeptical.
One reason is that the electoral process is a blunt instrument. Elections are dominated by a limited number of issues and boil down to a single binary choice. Thus it is not certain that such elections will produce policymakers who understand majority attitudes in all important issue areas. Particularly suspect is elected officials' grasp of public opinion on issues that are given secondary attention in campaigns.
A prime example of an issue receiving such secondary attention is foreign policy in the post-cold war era. From the 1950s through the 1980s international issues were at least intermittently prominent in U.S. elections: examples, in rough chronological order, include the "missile gap," Vietnam, détente, Panama, hostages in Iran, and renewed tension with the Soviet Union. Since the end of the cold war, though, no specific foreign policy issue has played a comparable electoral role. Given the low profile