You’ve probably heard the expression “Quid Pro Quo” before. It means “an equal exchange.” Another way to say this is “You get what you pay for.” Whatever your phraseology, the concept is pretty simple. For any thing you want, you must have something to exchange for it. This concept is the basis for our entire social structure and is manifested in many ways, from the exchange of our talents and time for money to the exchange of our money for food, shelter, and all the other things in life we buy. Determining the value of the exchange is important, and in our capitalistic economic system, the concept of supply and demand play a big role in determining the worth of things and talent. But the topic of this essay is not economics. There is another way to express the sentiment of quid pro quo, and that is “You get what you give.” It is this definition, and it’s association to our democratic government, that interests me.

If you believe the polls and the opinion editorials and the general grumbling of the people on the street, you might infer that Americans are growing increasingly unhappy with the quality of service they are receiving from their government, a government that is supposedly elected to respond to their concerns as a whole, and not just a government that works for the interests of the select or noisiest few. We complain about leniency for violent criminals and revolving prison doors. We decry the complexity and snail’s pace of the legal system, both criminal and civil. We constantly tirade at the state of our educational system, our medical system, or our retirement system. We shake our heads in disgust at the corruption uncovered almost daily among the political leadership in our cities and states and national levels of government. But when the jury summons arrives in the mailbox, our first thought is finding a way to get excused. When our children fail to pass skills tests or need remedial classes to get into community colleges, we find a teacher or program to blame instead of stepping in to help our kids learn. And when our politicians are out of touch or just plain stupid, we re-elect them based on a party affiliation instead of looking for a viable alternative. Even when they are indicted for corruption, we look to their contemporaries to fill their shoes, letting the shady deals pick up as if nothing had ever changed. In increasing numbers, we aren’t even voting at all. Quid pro quo. You get what you give. If we’re as unhappy as we proclaim to be, if we’re as dissatisfied and disgusted as we profess to be, why aren’t we giving more so that we can get a better product?

Part of the problem is the growing feeling among average people that the whole political process is too corrupt to change and that nothing we could do or say will make a difference. This feeling of hopelessness is neither accurate nor acceptable if we are to revive true self-government and restore democratic values to our political system. The fact is that at least 40% and upwards of 80% of eligible voters do not participate in local, state, or federal elections. In Fixing The Vote, Parts One and Two, I explored the reasons for this dilemma and offered some viable solutions to help turn this trend around. But an even bigger part of the solution lies in changing our own attitudes and deciding to get back in the game. Hopelessness is not accurate because if all of those unheard voices would let themselves be heard, then hope could transcend into reality through the election of real people-oriented representatives instead of the paid for politicians we have now. Hopelessness is not acceptable because to abandon the process is to give it to the corrupt corporations and their political hacks, in effect handing them the key to our public assets and turning our backs as they plunder the safe. If change is what you want, then you must let it be known. Find a candidate you can support and get the silent majority to actually turn out and back your choice instead of settling for the party’s anointed golden child of the season or forgoing the vote altogether.

Do you want a representative who spends his or her time cuddling up to big money donors instead of working on the public problems? Do you want to continue to pay taxes to support an over-bloated bureaucracy that fumbles the future integrity of our educational, medical, and retirement systems? Do you want a politician who would give away your public lands and funds so that they can be exploited by billion dollar corporations or shut down entirely by special interest demands? If your answer is “Hell No!” then you must give more than lip service. You must get more involved. You must vote. Otherwise, you might just as well keep your gripes to yourself.

It may seem simplistic to continually return to the importance of voting and its ability to create reform, but as with many things in life, simple is the way to go. And truth be told, while the act of voting is among the most important tools we have for reform, it is also the least imposing form of action imaginable. It takes mere minutes (especially if you get an absentee ballot sent to you) in many cases, and in places where the lines to the polls are longer, demand for and volunteer to staff more polling centers. As registration increases with a renewed realization of the empowerment that voting can bring, election officials will be forced to open more polling centers. If they follow the model set by Starbucks (a shop on every corner, because waiting more than a few minutes is too long to wait), voting could be as easy as drive-thru service. If you want people you can trust in office, you’ve got to put them there. Quid pro quo.

Increasing the vote is the first big step, and also the easiest, at least it should be. Beyond that, levels of involvement become more time consuming, but also more important as they relate to oversight and holding elected officials accountable for their actions on our behalf. We must be willing to join local citizen panels and school associations and public information committees. We must be willing to support honest attempts at reform as vociferously as we now bemoan the idiocy that passes for judicious public stewardship. We must eliminate government excess and corruption to retain our freedoms while reforming government efficiency to sustain our future. We must stop being silent.

With the active participants of democracy already in the fray, and getting nowhere but deeper in the morass of corruption and stagnancy, the ability of this country to move to a viable Common Sense position has been reduced. It has been stealthily subverted by the corporate interests and destructive forces of distorted religious ideologies and selfish attitudes of elected officials and fringe, self-serving positions of far right and far left special interest groups. You get what you give, and when you give less and less, someone else will try to fill that gap. In American politics, average citizens have been letting someone else dictate what they should think or support because they won’t speak for themselves. Are you one of those people? If you are, the future of change really rests in your hands.