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'Age Of Anger' Chronicles Rise Of Populist Backlash

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

After the U.K. voted for Brexit and the U.S. voted for Donald Trump, there was a lot of hand-wringing among the liberal elite about what went wrong. Many people say these elections were part of a new populism, a backlash against globalism and those same elites who've been running the system for so long.

In his new book titled "The Age Of Anger," writer Pankaj Mishra says the backlash is more complicated than that. And it's actually been building for some time in places like India, the Philippines, Turkey.

PANKAJ MISHRA: And let's not forget in Russia after a very traumatic experience of economic dislocation and, you know, basically the currency collapse. It was then that someone like Putin came to power. And we've forgotten these experiences when we talk about Brexit and Trump today.

MCEVERS: You say we are in an age of anger. You talk about how, you know, in 1989 the Berlin Wall fell down and there was this sense that liberal capitalism was going to bring all the good things and everyone is going to live happily ever after. But yet we're now in an age of anger. What do you mean? What happened?

MISHRA: Well, I think reality caught up with us. By us I mean people in the media, in politics, in business who had let themselves become intoxicated by these visions of universal progress. And I think what we forgot is that this experience of great economic disruptions - people being laid off, jobs disappearing - all this has led to a lot of uncertainty and, indeed, induced feelings of powerlessness amongst lots of people all around the world.

So, you know, while a small minority of people have benefited and a lot of people have been lifted out of poverty, there are huge numbers of people still out there who feel their lives have been deeply, deeply, in a way, disrupted by these massive economic, technological changes. And they are yet to see the benefits.

MCEVERS: Right. So it's almost as the idea and the mechanism of democracy has spread, more people feel that they deserve to be a part of something and yet feel that they don't have it. You call it a rage for equality at one point.

MISHRA: Absolutely. Look, I mean, I think equality defines the modern world. You know, that is what we all set out to achieve a long time ago. So what we've seen in the last three decades is that, you know, a lot of old hierarchies have been dismantled. Anyone can make it. A slumdog can become a millionaire.

You know, that has been that sort of dominant ethic. That has been at least the propaganda that a lot of people have believed in. And when they find their way blocked, the frustration and the rage is infinitely greater than, say, the 1960s or '70s.

MCEVERS: When you just were going to be a slumdog and you were going to stay a slumdog no matter what.

MISHRA: Well - I mean, I grew up in those circumstances where our ambitions were very, very circumscribed by our circumstances. We just didn't know what to aspire to, really, you know? Our horizons were very limited.

MCEVERS: Is there a risk that this interpretation might be sort of overselling this moment, right? You know, when Barack Obama was elected there was talk about a post-racial America, a new era of politics, and that didn't turn out to be true. Are we pushing that too much right now? Are we going to come - in eight years, 12 years, are we going to come to say, oh, maybe that was - you know, we went a little too far?

MISHRA: Kelly, if you had said that to me, say, a year ago or a few months ago I might have agreed with you. But, you know, now we have a volatile Twitter troll in the White House. So I think we've really entered a new phase of human history. I'm not exaggerating anything that happened in the next four years. So we can't really think of overselling this moment. A lot of things that we believed in in the past have proven themselves to be just simply inadequate and in need of fresh definition. That includes democracy at this point.

MCEVERS: Pankaj Mishra says a few ways people are redefining democracy are protests, organizing and greater participation. But I asked him - what about the millions of people who voted for Brexit and for Trump who believe they already participated in democracy? He says there are some kinds of democracy that for him are troublesome.

MISHRA: I think there is a dangerous form of democracy where a people, a community is formed around the idea of exclusion. So I would argue against that kind of democracy or thinking that forming a sovereign people or taking back control by building high walls and by demonizing minorities or immigrants actually is democracy because what it is basically saying - that democracy is only reserved for these people who happen to have a particular skin color or who happen to have a - or share a particular religion. This is not really democracy.

MCEVERS: Pankaj Mishra, thank you so much for your time today.

MISHRA: Thank you very much, Kelly.

MCEVERS: That's author Pankaj Mishra. His latest book, "Age Of Anger," is out now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.