President Joe Biden spent two days last week presiding over a virtual "summit for democracy" and attempting to rally more than 100 world leaders against the authoritarianism embodied by such nation-states as China and Russia.
He would have spent his time more fruitfully at the movies, watching recent blockbusters from India and China.
"The Battle at Lake Changjin," a three-hour epic that depicts valiant Chinese soldiers fighting US troops in the Korean War, has become China's highest-grossing film. India's biggest new hits include "Uri: The Surgical Strike," based on the unverified Indian claim that India killed hundreds of Pakistani militants in a cross-border attack in 2016, and "Shershaah," which recreates India's first televised war: the 1999 clash with Pakistan in the Himalayan fastness of Kargil.
Biden would have learned from these chest-beating films what defines the self-perceptions of a large part of the world's population: not a high-minded clash between democracy and authoritarianism, but nationalist passions.
Taken in the abstract, India and China would seem to embody perfectly Biden's clash between democracies and autocracies. In reality, though, popular movies in both countries — together with television, newspapers and social media — are defining a mode of collective life and shaping private sentiments of belonging in ways that dissolve the cold war binaries still cherished by an older generation.
During the decades of the cold war, notions of equality, dignity and democratic choice did indeed possess broad emotional appeal as well as moral prestige. Growing up in India, I shared a sense of pride with many people in the country's identity as the world's largest democracy — what made it seem superior to both military-dominated Pakistan and disaster-prone communist China.
But, with the advent of a single model of economic globalisation in the 1990s, democracy seemed less and less an irreproachable virtue. China, after all, was achieving astounding economic growth with a razor-sharp nationalist focus rather than with elections and freedom of the press.
Thus, while China updated its patriotic narrative, incorporating Deng Xiaoping's market-led modernisation as well as Mao Zedong's communist revolution, using fire-breathing outlets such as Global Times as well as state-owned CCTV, many Indians turned to a hard-line and explicitly Hindu nationalism.
India's nuclear tests in 1998 and its televised war with Pakistan in 1999 provided the first signs of a transformed national mood and self-image. Staid old newspapers such as the Times of India as well as brash new satellite television channels and popular cinema began to project India as a militarily and economically resurgent nation, more than as a great secular democracy.
Setbacks in the project to achieve wealth and power have bound many Indians even closer, in a community of private and collective resentment. One of their soft targets is the depressed Indian minority of Muslims. Watching one of the new hyper-patriotic and Islamophobic films in a cinema this month, the Indian journalist Rana Ayyub noted that whenever Indian Muslims were upbraided, the audience "whistled and applauded."
Such rancorous nationalism is a mode of popular democracy, uniting people from different classes and regions through a shared and strong resentment of perceived outsiders.
A somewhat similar process of emotional re-anchoring can be seen even in the world's oldest democracy, the United Kingdom. English nationalism, once hardly visible, became a formidable force during a period of deindustrialisation and national decline, with the help of an overwhelmingly right-wing and xenophobic media.
The English identity is now largely constituted by loathing of the European Union, nostalgia for imperial-era authority and distrust of change in general. This relatively new but deep community of feeling unites such socially and economically disparate constituencies as Tories in the rich southern counties of England and struggling former Labour voters in the impoverished North.
It partly explains the extraordinary support for Britain's perennially floundering Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as well as the general indifference to his dismantling of the individual liberties for which British democracy was once celebrated.
Much political analysis takes no cognizance of such long-term cultural and psychic shifts. Beholden to obsolete concepts, it misses the fact that the real enemy of democracy today is something much more insidious than autocracy: It is the pseudo-democracy forged by widely shared and profoundly felt emotions of rancour and resentment.
Democracy was a promise of equality and freedom. In practice, however, a significant number of people in both democratic and authoritarian states feel themselves to be equal and free through a nationalism that degrades others and ultimately assists autocratic leaders. Failing to grasp this, Biden's big summit is likely to have a little lasting impact.
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. His books include "Age of Anger: A History of the Present," "From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia," and "Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond."
Disclaimer: This opinion first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement