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

Optimizing Democracy

While issue after mega-issue begs in vain for wise and farsighted solutions from our fearless leaders -- politically-engaged citizens shake their heads in disgust and disbelief.

Some then stiffen their resolve, and gird themselves for the next battle. Others worry about the bigger picture of democracy, and grow depressed.

Not a day goes by lately without a prominent commentator referring to our entire political system as irretrievably broken, dysfunctional, paralyzed -- and how desperately we need to reverse this curse, or we'll never solve anything.

"Ominously dysfunctional" is Paul Krugman's phrase du jour.

"Sup-optimal" was how Thomas Friedman recently characterized our government's chronic inability to generate substantive solutions to our biggest problems.

The failing grades on our systemic report card is not something that can be fixed by passing a particular piece of legislation, or changing Senate procedures -- or by rotating the players in the next election.

So how do we climb back out of this hole?

Mr. Friedman offers his view, and it's worth reflecting on: "The standard answer is that we need better leaders. The real answer is that we need better citizens."

It's rare to hear anyone of national renown talk about the citizen's role in our democracy's dysfunction, but he's right to do so. However, he doesn't take the tough love critique nearly far enough -- to bore beneath the surface of what it really means to be a better citizen in modern times -- and how that could lead to better solutions to national problems.

Mr. Friedman seems to put all his faith in leaders. He limits his call for citizen betterment to our being willing to pay more taxes and otherwise sacrifice for policies that he considers enlightened, so that our leaders would have a freer hand in enacting those policies.

Put aside the question of whether the policies he prescribes are the right ones, or whether politicians would recognize them as such. Or whether citizens funding them is the best expression of our civic virtue. There's another more fundamental question that is rarely asked and urgently needs answering.

Are elected officials today even capable of solving America's problems by themselves? Or are they permanently compromised by public passivity, forcing them into unholy alliances with the only interests that aren't shy about filling the power vacuum created by civic apathy and the ignorance that flows from it.

And make no mistake -- according to every major study of the last five years, the average American is woefully ill-informed and thoroughly disengaged. And you know what they say about getting the government we deserve.

The only good news it that our civic and political illiteracy is mostly by choice. With the right motivation, we-the-people could train ourselves to play a much more effective role in the never-ending process of self-governance. And given the breath and complexity of the issues facing the nation, we could use the wisdom of a much larger crowd, don't you think?

Some will say that our system was not designed for citizens to shoulder a heavier burden. That's a rather outdated and elitist view, but let's say it has some merit. So what? What choice do we have? We're out of options.

Have political elites (of either party) given us even a shred of evidence in the last forty years that they alone are capable of confronting our ever-metastasizing crises, threats, and challenges in a comprehensive, unifying, and sustainable manner?

Enough said. They need help. And citizens are the only reserve team we have.

Which is why citizen responsibilities need to be re-defined to mean more than just voting every couple years for whatever candidates parade in front of us, and paying the freight for policies we had nothing to do with devising, and don't understand.

This is especially ironic because if we did understand them, and did participate in shaping them, we would support the hell out of them. And having 80% of the country behind the big fixes we need is the only way -- the only way -- any American government will ever again be able to enact truly transformative policies.

Friedman lists a half dozen factors that pervert the political process, distance citizens from government, and produce anger and frustration in the public. In my view, they are all true. And beside the point. Fix all of them while the citizenry remains utterly uninformed about the issues and the policies proposed to address them -- and feeling they have no way to convey their concerns to policy-makers and therefore don't make the effort -- and you're all but guaranteed permanent gridlock.

Given these dynamics, is it any wonder that small but loud factions get such disproportionate attention? They're the only ones making their voices heard. And as long as the vast majority of America remains passive and ill-informed, polarization and paralysis will be our constant companions.

But since civic tuneout is willful, an antidote is at hand if the politically-engaged minority were to take it upon themselves to explore a million different ways to inspire fellow citizens to step up their game.

Krugman closes his piece warning that:

"Doing nothing is not an option -- not unless you want the nation to sit motionless, with an effectively paralyzed government, waiting for financial, environmental and fiscal crises to strike."

So as everyone concerned about the future reflects on what that magic something might be that could return government to a high functioning servant of the reasoned public will, let's not lose sight of first principles. While left and right differ about the exact role and size of government, we all want it to be wise and effective.

But is that even remotely possible anymore without wise and effective citizens?

I don't think so. In fact, it's pure folly to continue this delusion. Actually it's worse than folly. It's lethal.

So thank you Mr. Friedman for daring to bring the citizen into the conversation. Keep it up. If enough columnists and bloggers and other influence-shapers were to do the same, who knows what might happen.

Sure can't get much worse.