Salena Zito

INDEPENDENCE PASS, Colo. – A perilously narrow road, open only during summer, leads to the Continental Divide at 12,095 feet and a breathtaking peak.

Nearly 2,000 miles to the east, a different but equally symbolic peak stands at the heart of America’s democracy: At just over 555 feet, the Washington Monument honors the country’s first president and Revolutionary War commander who gave up the life of a gentleman farmer to lead a band of “scrabble” to win their liberty and the country’s independence.

More than miles and heights separate “Main Street” Americans from those who govern them. Their disconnect is so deep, so wide, that filling it is hard to imagine.

“Here, our vision of the American dream looks far different than it does in Washington,” says Milan Ralich of Weirton, W.Va., who works in the local Sherwin-Williams paint store.

Dressed in a crisp blue shirt embroidered with the store’s logo and his name, Ralich points to the town’s massive steel mill which straddles the highway at several points.

“Thirty-eight years were spent in that plant, and you worked hard every day,” he says. “It provided a good life.”

Once employing 14,000, the mill is down to a few hundred workers. Ralich works at the paint store part-time to make ends meet because of a scaled-back pension.

From the Colorado Rockies to small fishing towns in Massachusetts and all points in between, Americans finally may have the “change election” they sought in 2008.

In less than a year, this columnist has traveled 6,609 miles, interviewed 432 people registered as or identifying with Democrats in 17 states, and written about scores of races for U.S. Senate and House seats and governor’s mansions.

In the process, I lost a transmission, wore out four new tires (then promptly flattened two replacement tires), cracked a windshield, broke a passenger window, had emergency surgery, was chased by a funnel cloud on the Great Plains, staggered through two blizzards, was pelted by hail, wilted in record heat, and even saw a lot of locusts (although a farmer assured me that it wasn’t a swarm).

All along the country’s “blue highways” (those secondary roads marked blue on U.S. maps) Americans spoke about their disappointment in the change they so proudly supported in 2008 – sometimes whispering for fear of being labeled a racist, sometimes shouting at Tea Party rallies.

In coffee shops, on street corners, at farms and factories, the narrative was always the same: How could such great promise have let the country down so much, so quickly?

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.