03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Democracy 3.0

America is anxious, for good reason. But in the relentless media stream that gushes forth every day, endlessly looping the litany of horribles -- and what politicians and pundits say the government must or must not do about them -- no one ever turns the mirror around.

Never any headlines or speeches about what "we the people" need to do to become more effective partners in this great experiment called self-government.

Yes, in campaign season, the get-out-the-vote machines roar to life.  And this past year, there's been a remarkable coalition of interests calling for a surge of service.  Let's hope that continues, as it will make us a better and more compassionate country.

But beyond the essential acts of voting and volunteering, there's a third leg of civic engagement required for democracy to thrive.  A more demanding and daily form that is key to ensuring that America has the wisdom and will to successfully and sustainably address our many problems.

But we the peeps are never inspired to engage on that level.

It's critical that we shatter this silence.

Survey after major survey tell the tale: the vast majority of Americans are deeply and willfully uninformed about the big issues that shape all our lives and/or disengaged from participating in political problem-solving in any meaningful way.

This dual-edged civic flaw has atrophied the muscles of participatory democracy, and has paved the way for the special interest-dominated politics that have brought us to the brink.  Even among the informed minority, most have withdrawn from the public square, as they feel there's no effective way to make their voices heard without screaming, so why even bother trying.

The bottom line is that the much praised but never challenged American people know way too little about the issues, the policies, or how government works at even its most basic level.  And they apparently care even less.  The statistics about political ignorance and disengagement are jaw dropping, and I'll link to them in my next post.  For now, I'd just like to set the discussion table with a core proposition:

Politics as usual not only doesn't work anymore -- it can't -- regardless of who is president, or which party controls Congress.  It's not that they're all corrupt or two-faced or feckless.  Most are actually quite well intentioned.  But they're forced to govern in a sea of public passivity, so they surf the only waves that can buoy and propel them.  You'd do the same if you were in their position.

The result is rabid polarization, policy pabulum, and a slow but inevitable decay of all we hold dear.

If we really want to kill this cancer, there's only one answer.

We -- The People -- need a radical upgrade in the way we practice democracy.

A new operating system that motivates and rewards a nation of well-informed citizens -- actively participating in political decision-making on a regular basis -- helping shape the national debate rather than being shaped by it.

Is that really possible?

Yes, and in future posts, we'll explore how. But the first step is overcoming inertia -- because most Americans currently claim they don't have the time to keep up to speed on current events, or to dig beneath the surface to see the true impact of government policies -- and don't really feel it's their job anyway.

Yet this aggressively passive civic mindset is the very thing that creates the political power vacuum that's filled by those who aren't shy about making their voices heard and who therefore shape the policies and finance the governments we so endlessly and futilely complain about.

This dysfunction must be mended or we're all in deep trouble.  Future generations all the more so.

Confronted by increasingly complex crises on every front, America needs all the wisdom it can get, from as many sources as it can get it.  No president or Congress can rise to the challenge alone.  It's axiomatic -- they will always bend to the will of powerful private interests as long as the voice of the public interest remains weak.

The only antidote is an active, vocal, thoroughly informed and thoughtful citizenry.

We are not a stupid people.  Far from it.  We inherently have all we need to excel as citizens -- everything except the will.  Yet this rampant civic laziness and the political ignorance that flows from it is considered a taboo subject for those who lust for votes or ratings.  As such, there's long been a conspiracy of silence among politicians and the media to avoid talking about any of this.

But talk about it we must.  A lot.

In future posts I'll share the fruits of two years of research, as well as a series of video essays I've produced on this subject featuring a dozen of America's leading political philosophers and civic engagement experts.  The upshot is that there's both good news and bad news.

The bad is just how incredibly far we need to go to become a nation of citizens able and willing to engage in serious self-governance.  And why it's literally a life and death matter.

The good news is that there are proven methods and processes for motivating and enabling citizens to learn about issues, cast off cynicism, and make their voices heard in a highly effective way.

We live in strange and threatening times.  But also fascinating times, filled with viral opportunity.  And we get to choose which road to ride on.

That's the beauty of America.  Her light flickers, but a beacon still.