Salena Zito

SHARPSBURG, Md.- Just past dawn on a brisk September morning, a couple in their 30s walked along the sunken road known as “Bloody Lane” with a toddler sleeping soundly in her stroller and a newborn snuggled against his father.

“Just think about this — we’re standing here at the exact moment the battle began,” the husband said as his wife nodded, smiled and reached down to hug her sleeping daughter. Both parents then sat in the grass along the crushed-limestone lane.

They were among thousands who converged before sunrise on this small Maryland town for the 150th anniversary of Antietam — the bloodiest single day of the Civil War and still the bloodiest in American history, a day that left more than 23,000 men dead, maimed or missing.

“Never in a million years did I expect this many people,” said a National Park Service ranger directing cars to park on a sloping muddy field; the license plates reflected visitors from as far north as Maine and as far west as Oregon.

Americans seem to be drawn to solemn moments in our history, especially when they believe the times they live in are tumultuous, the ranger said. “It’s almost like a pilgrimage.”

In doing so, they create simple yet surprising moments such as the one that unfolded on this battlefield, commemorating a battle and a war that former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said “made us a more perfect union.”

It is a very different America that exists beyond the astonishing narrowness of social media, beyond the group-think that forms in the press pools covering political campaigns, in political parties’ convention halls or in the bubble of Washington, D.C.

Despite all the advantages of instant communication and news access found in video clips streaming over the Internet, what happens on websites such as Twitter or on campaign buses never seems to adequately capture what is happening on Main Street.

Since boarding a jetliner on Christmas night last year, this reporter has logged more than 8,600 miles in 21 states and has interviewed more than 1,200 people registered as or identifying with Democrats, all in an attempt to tell the stories of their pocketbooks, their families and their America.

Reality is like gravity: It can pull you down in an instant. From a distance, pundits and reporters hail President Barack Obama’s accomplishments and the ideology of his first term. Yet many voters who supported him in 2008 now face strikingly different realities.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.