MOST of us who enjoy reading history, especially that of our own country, understand the incredible gift we have been given by those who framed the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Building on that foundation over these 200-plus years, we have gradually evolved a truly remarkable political system whose central premise has been to engage the participation and involvement of every citizen no matter their ethnic, racial, or cultural background, no matter their economic or social circumstance. Thus, it is surprising and disappointing to see how quickly many commentators on the political scene have seized upon nostrums like third parties and independent candidacies as if there were a vacuum in the political process that can only be filled by some new group whose motives are pure and whose vision is clear. I do understand the frustration that people feel these days. Net real income, after taxes and inflation, seems for the majority of Americans to be frozen, while the cost of educating our children, especially in college, and the price of new homes seem to be on a never-ending spiral. Layoffs have hit every stratum in seemingly every industry. Government is clearly incapable of living within our collective means. Inefficiencies and waste are exceeded only by the degree of insensitivity to the individual and the family. More than two-thirds of us are convinced that the producers of our television shows and movies simply do not in any way share our deeply rooted morals and values. In sum, 2 out of 3 Americans believe that this, the richest, most productive, most vibrant, and freest country in the world, is on the wrong track. Does this argue for a new party or some ''knight in shining armor''? Absolutely not. Almost 19 years ago, I was given the responsibility of leading the Republican Party as its national chairman. We had been clobbered in two consecutive elections as people rejected our candidates out of disgust with Watergate and Vietnam. Things were so desperate that a number of people began to suggest that our only hope was to change the name of the party. My predecessor was a wonderful woman, Mary Louise Smith. She answered that suggestion with a tart comment: ''We don't have to change the name of the party - we have to live up to it.'' She was absolutely right. That same rule can be adopted very well by Republicans and Democrats today. Attacks on public figures Our two parties are honorable institutions and are composed largely of honorable people, but you wouldn't know it if you looked at the television or news accounts these days. Attacks on everyone in public life are simplistic, bombastic, and often dishonest. The overwhelming majority of public servants in this country are sacrificing themselves, their families, and their personal time in order to do the best they know how to do in representing us. If we are not nominating and electing the very best of this country, the odds are that it's not their fault, but ours. Voting participation is under 50 percent in most elections. We nominate presidents with only about 15 percent of the vote in each primary state. Whose fault is that? And yet we complain and criticize. Despite the attacks, both parties are addressing extraordinarily tough issues every day of every week of every month. It's a different world, and it is requiring different answers. They are wrestling through those answers, and it's tough. Politics can be grubby work, but governance, representative governance, is the genius of our political system. It requires participation, not constant carping or dropping out. I really am frustrated by the reasons given for the resignation of people like Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey, and the response to that resignation by many in the press. Here's a man who has sided with the president more than most members of either party in the United States Senate, but now talks about being ''independent.'' Here's a man who could fight for his convictions by being in the Senate, but he now wants to engage in reforming the citizenry. Well, I think that's a little too easy. The fact is, Democrats are having a rough road in Washington these days in part because they had ''fat city'' for 40 years, during which they controlled the House of Representatives, and, except for six years in the 1980s, the Senate as well. It's tough to be in the minority - you have to get in there and slug it out. And you can't reclaim the helm if you abandon ship. When people do leave and start talking about becoming independent or espousing third parties, they give the impression that the American people don't need a political organization to advance their interests. That's just plain baloney. They do. A party is the only bridge between average citizens and their government. It is the only megaphone we have. It is that vehicle by which we enlarge and enhance our voice, express our concerns, and validate our citizenship by participation. We need citizens, not heroes This country doesn't need a man on a white horse, it needs citizens who know that if they don't like the violence on television they are the ones with the remote control in their hands. We need citizens who know that if they want to get their children a better education, the first step is to start reading to them when they are young, working with them on their homework as they progress, insisting on standards and accountability from their individual schools, and decrying the fraud of grade inflation and SAT scores that are pumped up to make people feel good. We need both parties to be vibrant, representative, and effective. We need them because we need a choice. The issues we face are tough and complicated, and they deserve rational debate. We're not getting that. We're not getting it because television lacks the integrity or the will to give us more than 20 seconds on a given issue, and we let it happen. But television is not the real issue. If we want effective political parties that truly reflect our needs and hopes, we can't just wish it. We have to put ourselves in the fray and fight for our beliefs. The two parties don't have to change their names, but had better start living up to them. They can only do that if we get off the sidelines and get engaged again. That's the American way - it works.