The United States War in Iraq is finally officially over today. It’s an occasion well worth marking.

Why did it end? Certainly not because the matter was settled on the battlefield, either with a clear win or a clear loss. Anyone who has any confidence that the goals Americans were fighting for from 2004 on have now been secured is nuts. On the other hand, it’s not a “defeat” in the sense of being driven off the battlefield. All of which means that leaving is a real choice. Yes, the Iraqi government had some say in the question, but had the US been seriously committed over the last several years to staying, I think it’s pretty clear there could easily still be 100,000 or more troops there, indefinitely, no matter what the Iraqis wanted.

No, the United States ended its war in Iraq by choice, just as it got in by choice.

And, as it turns out, the decision to leave casts quite a bit of light on how Madisonian democracy works in the US, both for good and for bad. It’s a story in which the ocean liner metaphor people use was absolutely apt. It took a whole lot of pushing, but this certainly appears to be the case in which citizen action, working through a political party, ended a war.

The story goes like this. Acting in presidential primaries and other primaries in 2004, liberals made it clear that the ambivalence (or, in some cases, solid support) for the war that was evident in Congress in 2002 was absolutely unacceptable within the Democratic Party. That accelerated in the 2006 primaries, with the sort-of-defeat of Joe Lieberman showing exactly where the party was. As a consequence, when Democrats won majorities in Congress in 2006 – in large part because unhappiness with the war had severely damaged George W. Bush – it was an almost solidly antiwar caucus.

Now it gets tricky. Under the Madisonian system, Bush, who had two more years in the White House, was just as legitimate an elected official as were the new Democrats in Congress (as were the remaining Republicans on the Hill, for that matter). But the result wasn’t, as it happened, deadlock; instead, much to the frustration of antiwar voters, the result was a surge into Iraq and increased American casualties. And yet as much as it didn’t appear so at the time, the truth was that the surge was the beginning of the end: there’s a straight line from the surge through the agreement with Iraqis that yielded steady troop reductions under Bush, continued pullback under Barack Obama, and the final official handover today. Meanwhile, Obama, in large part because of his credibility with antiwar Democratic activists and other party actors, emerged as a surprise nominee of the party in 2008, and captured the presidency ready to carry out the Bush withdrawal – or, a more blunt version might have it, the Bush slow motion surrender.

The point is that the war ended because citizens, acting mainly through the Democratic Party, ended it. Democratic Party actors – activists, policy specialists, politicians, campaign operatives, and eventually just about everyone, many of whom were not politically active before the war – made it clear that a pro-war candidate could not be safely nominated, eventually, for any federal office. And the other point is that it took just forever to get that done, and it was never certain; had the economy boomed the Republicans might well have won in 2008. Is that undemocratic, given that the war polled badly for some time? I’d argue no: after all, at no time did a solid majority of all voters not only oppose the war but consider it a high priority, a critical voting issue. In those situations, it’s never quite clear that there is only one clearly democratic policy outcome. Instead, what we get are a wide variety of possible legitimate democratic outcomes. And what matters is which set of people care enough to try to get it done, and then are successful enough at politics that they can eventually get their preferred outcome.

And so today’s outcome is the very direct, if distant, triumph of the Deaniacs way back in 2003. It’s the triumph of party actors who enforced an antiwar line on Democratic candidates in 2004 and 2006. A triumph of all the people who worked so hard for Ned Lamont in Connecticut. It’s a triumph of those who did it again in 2008 despite the frustrations of 2007 – it’s a triumph of those who didn’t walk away when Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and the rest of them were apparently stymied by George W. Bush, but instead went out and tried to reinforce their numbers in the Senate and the House and to put an ally in the White House.

I’ve said this before, but I’ll repeat it: elections aren’t plebiscites on public policy issues. They don’t actually tell us “what the people want” in any kind of direct way…that’s just not something that mass-electorate contests are capable of doing. But they can be used by citizens, especially acting through political parties, to take action. To make history. And it’s damn hard; it’s a nation of over 300 million, and many of them really, really, don’t agree with you – and even more just don’t actually care about whatever it is that you believe is critically important, as hard as you may find that to believe. That’s not a flaw of democracy: that is democracy. But it’s also democracy to keep working, in and out of electoral politics, to find allies, to build coalitions, and to keep trying to win no matter how frustrating it gets.

I’m afraid we don’t teach that very well, either in school or through our political culture. But that’s the way that real democracy works. And when you do win, and even if that victory is incomplete or took too long in coming, it’s very appropriate to look back and appreciate not only all that you have done, but also a political system of real self-government. No matter how hard that is in practice.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.