As Democrats recover from the euphoric wake of the “Blue Wave” and finally seize the reins of government across the country and especially in Maine, it is vitally important that they not lose sight of the context in which their victory took place. The thousands of grassroots activists who brought this victory might be tempted to say to themselves, “We did it, we’ll let the pros take it from here!” But unfortunately we can’t afford to be lulled into complacency at this time. We may have bought ourselves some time, but democracy itself still hangs by a thread.

First things first: congratulations to Janet Mills and the entire state of Maine. As the new governor takes office with the assistance of two Democratically controlled chambers, we should all feel grateful and relieved that the state will be heading in a new direction — one that is much more accountable to the will of the people who elected them into power than the LePage administration and its Republican enablers. Democrats have an opportunity to enact an agenda that will benefit the majority of the people who call Maine home, and in so doing they have an opportunity to regain the popular trust of the people here for years to come. Let’s hope they don’t blow it.

Secondly, we can’t forget that LePage and the Republicans set an extremely low bar for what we should expect from our elected officials in Augusta. For Democrats to succeed and retain their ability to set forth and implement policy, they will need to enact an agenda that will actually materially benefit working people. It will not be enough to simply refuse to veto every piece of progressive legislation that comes before the governor that she doesn’t like. It will not be enough to actually sign into law without alteration bills which the people of Maine approve of at the ballot box by referendum — it shouldn’t be considered a triumph of democratic politics to respect the will of the voters. It will not be enough to refrain from verbally abusing members of the opposing party when they take stances on issues that you don’t like. These are some of the important substantive and stylistic differences that Democrats campaigned and won on, but in context these are little more than bedrock principles and the modus operandi of representative democracy. If we are to save representative democracy, which remains in crisis, Democrats need to take it a step further.

Lastly and most importantly: irrespective of the “Blue Wave” nationally that helped buoy a Democratic “trifecta” in Maine, the white nationalism that LePage cultivated and Trump unleashed is alive and well, and it is right in our backyards. While they might be a minority, they are vocal, and they are not going away simply because Democrats wield the gavel. They will continue to organize and to draw support from disaffected — although perhaps not openly bigoted — white working-class people unless Democrats can demonstrate that the government can actually do something for these people to make their lives easier. In hindsight, LePage’s initial victory in 2010 should be seen as a cry for help and desperation by Maine’s aging, white and rural population. The last time Democrats had the helm, their middle-of-the-road approach to alleviating rural poverty was milquetoast at best. LePage and Trump are manifestations of the rejection of that approach.

Except for the coast from the New Hampshire border to Mount Desert Island, most of the area of Maine could qualify as what urban pundits call “fly-over country,” really not demographically, economically, or even culturally dissimilar from rural Missouri or Arkansas. Fitting with that image is the disturbing proliferation of Confederate flags and other symbols of white supremacy that are common sights in many Maine towns where few tourists would ever have a reason to venture. Those flags are not coming down anytime soon. While the percentage of people who openly espouse these views in these areas is small, the percentage of people who openly speak out against such views is even smaller. Sadly, this applies to the few elected Democrats who represent these areas.

Bigotry and intolerance fester in the ignorance wrought by isolation. Ultimately, if Democrats are to head-off the constant threat of white nationalism and the “Two Maines” narrative that it thrives on, they are going to need to implement policy that will help rural people participate in the 21st-century economy. Aside from the low-hanging fruit of promising to work to bring broadband internet to the state’s neglected corners, Democrats have not offered any substantial ideas to integrate the vast, unconnected, and impoverished areas of the state with its wealthier economic hubs. Today it is impossible to take a bus, let alone a train or another form of public transportation, from most of Maine’s landmass to Portland or Bangor. This is utterly unacceptable by any developed-world standard. One concrete thing Democrats can do to materially improve the lives of working people would be to embark on a robust program of investing in and building public transportation infrastructure.

Since the ’90s, Democrats have gone too far without challenging — and in many cases embracing — the free-market fundamentalism that was birthed by Reagan. Power abhors a vacuum, and the political void that was created when both major parties embraced a similar economic ideology that did not benefit working people was filled by the white nationalism of Trump and LePage. It is clear that there are many areas of human existence that shouldn’t be subject to the rapacious demands of the profit motive. Health care is one of those areas, which even most Republican voters agree on. Janet Mills’ finally passing the Medicare expansion approved by the people of Maine in 2017 is a good step, but it is a small, politically safe step. If Democrats are to prevent the wholesale dismantling of our democracy from the scourge of white nationalism, they will need to go further. They will need to create a new narrative, one that challenges this free-market fundamentalism. Undoubtedly, they will need the insistence of the grassroots activists who got them elected to make this happen. Don’t get complacent.

Grayson Lookner

Grayson Looker grew up in Camden and is currently living in Portland