History International Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader: How Can Dictators Control So Many Millions of People?

King of Hearts, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Ralph Nader

How do dictators manage for decades to control 1.4 billion (China) or 146 million (Russia) people and on down to other smaller totalitarian regimes? Answer: one power hungry man at the top.

Political scientists have written about the various “pillars” sustaining autocratic regimes. Professor Christoph H. Stefes (University of Colorado Denver) focuses on the “pillars” legitimationrepression and co-optation – about which more later.

But just what are the mechanics flowing from the dictator’s throne that produce overwhelming compliance to the dictator’s demands? Starting with his “palace guards,” cooks, doctors, all the way down an intricate matrix of obedience to the cities/towns/villages level, the absence of any breaks in the links of the chains of oppression is remarkable. Even major suicidal sabotage at critical points in a regime’s iron grip rarely occurs.

Let’s start with the findings by anthropologists that all cultures have concentrations of power in very few hands whether in the political, economic or religious realms. Something in the scatter of human personalities entrenches the few ruling the many. The few deeply relish the power, wealth and status to which they apply great effort and energy while the many non-political inhabitants struggle to preserve their personal family lives, which dictators largely leave alone, especially when cultural norms provide private zones for work, family and progeny.

Think of a dictator raining a cascade of orders down many ladders with people on each rung giving their assigned orders to the people on the next rung. The police and military illustrate the operation of such hierarchies. Each rung holder has stakes in the obedience given by that next rung.

The orders flow from the General to the Colonels to the Lieutenants to the Sergeants and on down. In Putin’s Russia, top-down control of the economy is relayed by a small number of oligarchic mega-billionaires in close contact with their dictator in the Kremlin who has made them rich beyond their dreams of avarice.

Totalitarian systems function smoothly in their corrupt and cruel pursuits inside a complex culture of mass submission. The recent two-month coercive lockdown and testing of Shanghai’s 25 million residents – to check the spread of Covid-19 – is an astonishing harbinger of how a mass-surveillance state can block people from buying food, receiving health care, connecting with families and simply stepping out of beehive apartments into their neighborhoods.

Returning to Professor Stefes’s constructs, which are useful references to formal or informal systems where dictators give key personages a piece of the action in return for absolute loyalty. Such co-optation is backed up by terror, brute force, deep harassment, or jailing of dissidents. Legitimation takes the form of rigged elections (the dictator and his henchman get well over 90% of the vote) which results in the oxymoronic phrase – “an elected dictatorship.”

Military juntas against people labeled “communists,” or reacting to corrupt regimes that have collapsed basic public services and protections, combine both ‘legitimation’ and ‘repression’ in one violent overthrow.

Absolute dictators who survive, do not often write memoirs when they go into exile (Spain for years was a refuge for ousted South American dictators). Were they to do so, it would probably be to settle scores, not to illuminate in revealing detail how they so dominated all but the personal lives of millions of their subjects until they were ousted. Some dictators might confess their own daily fears of people thirsting for revenge over their regime’s atrocities.

They might even admit that they would have given up their iron power for safe passage to ageing dictator’s island of exiles inhabited by former tyrants and their families. Understanding how people displace dictators, from various perspectives, should be studied. Building and sustaining democracy requires no less.

Ralph Nader
Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader is an American political activist, author, lecturer, and attorney noted for his involvement in consumer protection, environmentalism, and government reform causes. The son of Lebanese immigrants to the United States, Nader attended Princeton University and Harvard Law School.


  1. Sorry to see Nader jump on the ‘democracy’ bandwagon. I suppose the most important question he fails to address is: which leader do you believe has the most support from his people, Biden, Xi, or Putin?

    1. Thank you! Yes, I have lived in China for 20 years, and the government is well liked. It serves the people, unlike many other governments. And the government here is not Xi, but rather a huge committee. What did that committee do? Prevented hundreds of millions of covid deaths, brought hundreds of millions out of poverty, and many more things. Ralph, I listen to your show each week, and you are great. But this Xi “dictator” stuff is just nonsense.

    2. Randall, as all our founders understood from their ‘deep reading’ of Roman history, “The disease of Empire is Republics”

      So America was founded as a Republic — which over a century and a half, and a Civil War, just started to evolve over the ‘long arc of history somewhat toward’ a more progressive position that Mark Twain co-founded in 1898 with some more evolution with the “American ‘Anti-Imperialist’ League”, but which degraded and robbed America over three decades, culminating in the “First World War of Empires” and the Great ‘Wealth-Looting’ Depression, then barely evolved and reached FDR’s birthing of some partial ‘social democracy’ toward the evolution of another ‘arc of history’ — but with the first non-violent coup d’etat of FDR’s brilliant and socialist VP, Henry Wallace, being torpedoed by the OSS & DNC in ‘44 at the Democratic Convention, where Wallace went into the Convention at over 60% favorable on the first vote, but he was physically blocked from taking the podium — and there the ‘arc of history’ was sunk into the freezing waters of first the treacherous COLD WAR, with the pre-selected ‘little man’ manipulatable puppet, and haberdasher, Harry un-Truman, being led down the path to the gallows of deceitful un-government, which even honest General Ike recognized as ‘rule by Empire’ in his MIC ‘61 exposure of the new improved ‘long arc of history turning toward; Empire, a second violent coup in ‘63, imperialist war in Vietnam, then a “Quiet American” Empire coup — all leading to this entrenched parade of faux Emperor (and ‘actor’) presidents —- “all the way down” (as Bertrand Russell prophesied).

      1. Alan, I’m not sure how your comments have much to do with my challenge to Nader’s specious comments about democracy. I’m guessing you aren’t really responding to me, but rather taking the opportunity to present a blog of your own on the history of the United States. In future, you may want to just add a comment to the original article, instead of replying to a specific reply.

    3. Really, what ‘s up with Ralph? Listening to his show makes me wonder if it isn’t the company he keeps. Say what you will about Xi, at least his government isn’t a worldwide joke.

  2. The power hungry dictator serves only to focus the people’s attention; but in fact, it is the faceless nameless bureaucrats who in combination with global capital who make all the decisions. We did not require a “power hungry dictator” during the two years of covid. All the decisions to deprive us of our liberty were made by bureaucrats, a few whose names became known to us. I recommend you read Sheldon Wolin’s book “Inverted Totalitarianism” in order to understand how it is that millions are controlled today. The power hungry dictator is a feature of totalitarianism that has been consigned to the dust bin of history and has been replaced by a different kind of power center.

  3. Dictators can control others when each person surrenders her individuality to the collective.

  4. And, your comment on the situation in The “Excited States of Paranoia ” is what Ralph??

  5. “How do dictators manage for decades to control 1.4 billion (China) or 146 million (Russia) people and on down to other smaller totalitarian regimes? Answer: one power hungry man at the top.”

    This shows the limits of Nader’s political and geopolitical insight,

    Seems like a majority of Americans already realize the truth, so do the Chinese people.

    Most in China Call Their Nation A Democracy, Most in U.S. Say America Isn’t

    Key excerpts:

    These findings are part of a new study published by the Denmark-based Alliance of Democracies Foundation and Germany-based Latana data tracking firm. Part of the latest installment of the annual Democracy Perception Index published Monday, the study explores public opinions of democracy among 52,785 respondents across 53 nations and territories, including China and the U.S., surveyed between March 30 and May 10 of this year.

    When asked whether they believe their country is democratic, those in China topped the list, with some 83% saying the communist-led People’s Republic was a democracy. A resounding 91% said that democracy is important to them.

    But in the U.S., which touts itself as a global beacon of democracy, only 49% of those asked said their country was a democracy. And just over three-quarters of respondents, 76%, said democracy was important.

    For instance, some 63% in the U.S. said their government mainly serves the interests of a minority, while only 7% said the same in China. Asked about whether their country held free and fair elections and offered all citizens the right to free speech, nearly a third of respondents in the U.S., 32% and 31%, respectively, said they did not, while just 17% and 5%, respectively, in China answered the same questions negatively.


    Nader, a courageous and outspoken reformer, illustrates the limits imposed by a system that is inherently unreformable. Many things he accomplished are going to be reversed and overturned by the new neo-fascist order we see descending all around us.

    Bourgeois democracy was, is and always will be a con game, racket that depends on politicians who constantly mislead confused and undereducated populace. The US should replace e pluribus unum as its motto with vos seducat — fooled you again. And tell the eagle to drop the olive branch.

    Only an “authoritarian ” peoples government can erase racism, reverse inequality and create progress.

    1. NO politician has been honest with the people. if they had, they would blow it all wide open- politics is the entertainment division of the government. The rule is enabled by propaganda, psyops, and groupthink. YOu believe what you have been told and what others do. What you see on tv, internet, and were spoonfed in college is what your belief system relies on. What if this was 1984? And it is. Government works due to deception, not by totalitarian rule. But that is changing now. Soon it will be a world fascist totalitarian technocratic police state.

    2. Congratulations, BabaYaGa. Often the comments on internet pages are the most informative.

      This is the problem with Nader and the vast numbers of people like him. They think the system itself can be fixed. The underlying theme of most of my blog postings are that nothing will really work under the existing system.

      This is what you inevitably come to when you apply logic through the full spectrum of reality. A lot of people are able to get parts of reality correct because they are informed, have informed themselves, about that topic. Then they try to form opinions about what they do not know enough about, or have applied wrong criteria to, and get it completely wrong.

      Nader, like most liberals, fails because he accepts all the wrong assumptions about how reality works, engendered by the existing system. He cannot create an accurate model of reality. All he does, despite initial success, rolls back.

      The main false assumption he makes is that he is in a democracy. Most Americans are now past that delusion. People in my home of Canada are slower about this, but also coming around.

      To develop any solutions for the present growing crisis requires full spectrum thinking. It requires not only knowing enough but being able to recognize that underlying assumptions are not reality. They must be tested back to primary causes.

      Nader seems unable to do this. So he thinks he is living in a democracy, and everything contradicting it is non democracy. He seems to have no insight into why everything he did in his life ultimately failed.

      On the other hand, what I like about BabaYaga is that she understands that what liberals think of as ‘authoritarian’ is the only way to the goals of an actual democracy.

      My writing is going to gradually move to that theme. Right now I am working on a ‘review’ of the book “Why China Leads the World” https://www.amazon.com/Why-China-Leads-World-Democracy/dp/1735821314/

      I have done something pretty good in my own blog about people who get only some parts of the picture. https://yaxls.wordpress.com/2022/06/02/about-the-blue-and-yellow/

      She? BabaYaga is a female character in Russian folklore, right?

      1. Thank you and your insight are on target. Looking forward to reading your review.
        Yes, Baba Yaga is a Russian folklore character.
        My choice of Baba Yaga as a moniker was totally whimsical.
        Just popped into my mind. . .

    3. The government here in China is like an “anticipatory democracy”, not a “participatory democracy”. The government fears the people (remembering the past) and so anticipates what they want, lest they rise up en masse in the future and “participate”.

      The government in USA is supposed to be like a participatory democracy, but the masses don’t participate much. That leaves only the rich and their coporations and lobbyists to participate. USA does not have a functioning democracy.

      I’ve been here for ages. I’m Canadian and have lived all over the world. I’ve seen a lot of systems, and this system seems to work well.

  6. How?

    With modern tools like Facebook et. al. — which IMHO is the greatest purveyor of ‘Negative Externality Cost’ pumping and dumping scheme of ‘divide and conquer’, in the world!

    Which, BTW is the seminal deceit of this damned Disguised Global Crony Capitalist Racist Propagandist Criminal Ecocidal Child-Killing & War-Starting EMPIRE, controlled by the ‘Ruling-Elite’, UHNWI, <0.003%ers, TCCers, arrogantly self-appointed "Masters of the Universe", and "Evil (not-so) Geniuses" [Kurt Andersen] — which hides Empire behind their totally corrupted dual-party Vichy-facade of faux-democracy.

    1. Actually, we (the public) have been split apart, pitted against each other, for years. At the least – and this is something the bourgeoisie seem to easily forget – we’re now 26 years into the Democrats’ war on those left jobless. Look into the UN’s report on the consequences (life expectancy US poor fell below that of every developed nation, etc.) Outraged liberals got to their feet and demanded — free college tuition for the middle class. That’s the deepest split because this is a matter of life and death.

      1. D. H. Dope, —- No, the manipulation is far above the level of these mere dual-party Vichy-facades of faux-democracy of these two cutely named, but dullard, Republican and Democratic Parties of the underLYING EMPIRE.

    2. Ralph, the far more seminal message from you, Chris Hedges, and others has to be “Stop this most dangerous EMPIRE” — which is camouflaged behind this dual-party Vichy facade of faux democracy, and which manipulates all elections & minds.

      This EMPIRE is our most critical problem — all the many lesser ‘issues’ are only factors of media and insane wealth-manipulation which allows the EMPIRE to rule far above the ‘pay grade’ of this facade/ “Double Government” [Michael Glennon].

      Only , this “Strategic Advantage” [Michael Porter HBS] can be successfully employed to overturn this Disguised Global Crony Capitalist Racist Propagandist Criminal Ecocidal ‘Children-Killing’ & ‘War-Starting’ EMPIRE:


  7. How sad that a man of such wonderful achievements should sink to this “dictator” nonsense about President Putin, just as Chomsky has done. Anyone bothering to read some history, or even to listen to some of the thousands of hours of videos online of twenty years of Putin in charge can see the facts. The demonizing of Putin and also of Xi Jinping ignores all the actual achievements and appreciation by the populations of their countries, and also the opinions of those in the “West” who are not already fixed in their irrational hatred.

  8. What about big bussiness/corporate control of government?; this is the lever that breeds oligarchy, corruption and dictatorship. The MAGA crowd is the corollary of the Nader principle for political change; that a small group of dedicated people can lobby/agitate to change people/votes in the up and down the political spectrum. So called dictators are the progeny of the dem/repub duopoly, they do not magically come to power inevitably. We are in an extreme period preceded by decades (maybe centuries) of big business control & destruction by the 1%. But we are really in for it now, some say a decade-long depression while oligarchs flail at each other and destroy the planet. We must build real community locally to weather this war and destruction, and build out real democracy again. Start by growing gardens (like most Russians) and buying hybrid vehicles to cut gas use in half by 2030 (we will fail if we try to go all now, no matter what the tesla oligarch says). Self-reliance!! Local economy and politics!! “Get to know your neighbor”, Wendell Berry.

  9. You think Putin is the dictator? The aggressor? Seriously? How perfectly American. Consider that as Russia began pushing back against that surge of US/NATO bases in Eastern Europe, along Russia’s western border, along Ukraine’s border, into Ukraine itself, Americans were instructed to shriek, “Russia’s invading Ukraine!” That’s just what they did because we have “government managed” news media in the US who tell them what to think.

    A fun exercize to gain a clearer picture of who the bad guys are: Contrast all those US/NATO bases in the region (in direct violation of the 1990 NATO treaty) with all the Russian/Chinese troops along the US/Canada border…

    1. Yes, exactly D.H,

      The vastly dominant propaganda of this American centered Global Empire is a far greater weapon than Gary Will’s described in his 2010 work, “Bomb Power”

  10. the halfwit Nader has obviously never lived in a civilized nation—-USA one of the least free nations on earth
    as Marxists, Vilfredo Pareto, Robert Michel, Karl Mannheim Hannah Arendt, Isiah Berlin all demonstrated, liberal democracy opposes freedom and justice. Hegel’s notion of “the cunning of reason”, “the ethical state” incomprehensible to anglos
    “I see you are lost in the rubbish bin of reason”. Ferdinand Celine
    unable to comprehend Plato, Schiller, Berdayaev, Fichte, Feyerabend, Marx, Simmel, etc many will accept the fascist Nader assertions
    Tocqueville long ago demonstrated that the legal profession—the most conservative force in USA…that 2/3 of all lawyers on earth live in USA “the ultimate trickster’s paradise”. Sacvan Bercovitch, is no accident
    “from the inception of USA it has been informed by ubiquitous sleaze and hustling”. Walter MacDougal…I reject Nader sleaze

  11. Oh, billionaires will save us, as Ralph attempted to spiel a few years ago.

    Ahh, science as dictators. Capitalism as dictators. Hell, how many solutions capitalism has foisted upon us have enslaved us? The dirty engines of profits at all costs, not in the same category as dictatorship by theft and homicide?

    Death by a thousand cuts,

    For example,

    In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, mental health issues like anxiety and depression have become even more acute, with a 2021 study by Lancet finding that anxiety rates increased more than 20% in 2020.
    Anti-anxiety medication can increase the risk of a cognitive decline at an earlier age. A new study conducted by scientists from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANTSO) delves into the possible reasons.
    According to the research, drugs that help you with anxiety may impact the brain’s microglial cells, which in turn are connected with the dendritic spines – a vital part of the brain’s neurons. They are a key part of the brain that provide energy to the cells.
    Which is why the impact from anti-anxiety drugs may essentially end up damaging the system that makes sure our brain cells are activated and working.

  12. Nader always was an integral part of US regime and its controlled opposition whose sole objective was to identify and stifle real grass roots opposition to US imperial rule.

    It is liberal class with millionaires like Nader who jumps
    on Revolutionary bandwagons with one aim to derail them by switching their direction to dead end tracks toward discredited and corrupted to the bone partisan politics.

    “Vote those rotten busters out of office to make change ” ,what Nader and others peddle, is the biggest American political deception ever pulled.

    It was exactly voting that brought us continuing, with no meaningful change for 240+ years, despotic rule of monolithic US regime of oligarchy punctuated by at least 120 meaningless elections where all outcomes were apriori determined by strict vetting of candidates before one vote was even casted. The unvetted were attacked ad hominem, baselessly accused of crimes, intimidated, beaten, imprisoned or killed by bipartisan gangs of political thugs with guns.

    Even Jefferson understood what Nader does not namely that gangs of usurpers of power cannot be removed by voting but only by revolutionary pitchforks. The only way to real regime change which was always French Revolution style.

    For all real leftists and Marxists there is only one horrible dictator that rules globalized world. It is global dictator of centralized capital no matter if it is state capital or market capital or mixed/fused state and Market capital like in US today.

    Because it is monopolistic economic and financial capital that becomes usurper of socioeconomic and political power, enslaver and exploiter of humans and natural resources regardless of corrupted facade of bourgeois liberal democratic or autocratic or technocratic political framework pretending to serve people.

    The real dictatorial power is in hands of capital in Washington, London, Paris Berlin or Moscow or Delhi or Beijing. No difference whatsoever as all of them dictate human and natural resources submission to draconian rules of capital.

    And one might ask as a response to Nader loaded question why entire globe is living under such cruel dictatorship and do not aspire to socioeconomic and political democracy .

    The answer is $10 billion a day propaganda of words and deeds to suppress our class consciousness and to wage global class war by global concentrated capital against brainwashed and politically divided international labor.

    It is time that we unite and overthrow dictatorship of capital and start our own dictatorship of labor power in equal equitable, egalitarian and directly self ruled by consensus democratic society.

  13. “amerikans are farcical when it comes to money and force majeure–the 2 things they worship. my country has created 1 art form—the TV advertisement. you should not expect a democracy from a society like this”. Gore Vidal

  14. All good points. Knowing them at points in their lives! No one would have thought that Mao, Stalin and Hitler would become the most murderous dictators of all time.

    Hitler is the most interesting, I think. It’s hard to imagine a third Reich being formed by anyone else. My opinion is that you take Hitler out of the equation and there is no WW II. And he did it within the system by being legitimately elected.

    Stalin was more talented than most think but he inherited his position by, in a manner of speaking, suppressing Lenin’s last will and testament.

    Mao was a fraud, but a highly successful one. Highly intelligent, well read. But He cared not a wit for the peasant or working person and is responsible for the deaths of 70 million of his fellow citizens….not caused by wars.

    He was also lucky in that his revolution had the advantage of having its opponent, the Nationalists having to fight the Japanese at the same time.

    Hitler was by far the most talented but he also gained control over one of the most industrialized countries in the world.

    Mao took over a basket case of a nation and it was a basket case when he died in 1976.

    Stalin industrialized Russia in such a short time that it could be considered a miracle. But he. Did it with the blood of millions of his countrymen in his hands. He also had the advantage of great cooperation and trade between Germany and Russia between the wars.

    Maybe the greatest twist of fate was the promise of Gorbachev and then Yeltsen. But Yeltsen unknowingly let the Fox into the hen house. He believed Putin when he said he would continue his reforms but leopards don’t change their spots.

  15. Oh, Klanada ‘s right up there with USA and the lovely racist UK.

    Imagine, this Covidian masterful money making and fear mongering DARPA Pharma Project, dictators running Fortune 5000 continuing criminal enterprises…..

    When a Canadian university tells a professor in the natural sciences that, “this university does not recognize natural immunity,” then we have arrived at the lowest intellectual point in the history of our universities. Natural immunity is a basic biological fact. For it to be erased from recognition gives you just one indication of the assault on science and on academic knowledge committed in the name of a “public health emergency,” used to justify irrational, arbitrary, harmful, and discriminatory rules.

    Self-censorship has prevailed in Canadian universities, encouraged by castigating the few who express doubts, and by university administrations presenting unsubstantiated monologues advocating for restrictions and for dubious pharmaceutical products. We are further hampered in Canada by an inadequate number of public intellectuals, while we instead have a surplus of public relations intellectuals with close ties to pharmaceutical companies and corporate media.

    This is a country which has now purged a wide range of scholars in the natural and social sciences, and the humanities, because they expressed dissenting views and stood by the ethics governing their disciplines. Academic freedom is now, de facto, cancelled. Tenure is also, de facto, nullified. Faced with the first real test to their integrity and their ethics, the vast majority of Canadian scholars failed to stand up and speak out.

    Rather than serve as a source of diverse perspectives and challenging questions, universities instead fell in line with encouraging mass panic. This conformity has not only damaged public discourse, by taking leave of our duties as the critical conscience of society, it has damaged universities themselves, and I think the damage is now irreparable. University presidents have repeatedly produced unquestioning endorsements of the so-called “vaccines,” masking, and social distancing. Universities have internalized the “vaccine passport” system. Professors have been enlisted to police their students by enforcing mask mandates. Faculty unions loudly advocated for tougher restrictions, such as mandatory inoculation. These are extremely dangerous precedents. One’s place in a university can be cancelled at any time based on one’s health status. Just as dangerous is the Canadian university being conscripted by the state-corporate alliance.

    Quoted fro Max Forte and Zero Anthropology…..

  16. Now do a this post: How can US Oligarchs Control Millions of People? And when you look at it the “dictators” like Putin and Xi are serving their people better than the oligarchs.

  17. Ralph Nader (RN) was always a straight arrow. He always played steadfastly, and unwaveringly, by the law books.
    He had some tremendous systemic legal victories on behalf of the best interests of the general public.
    These major victories, however, were prior to the tyranny that is, but now it’s time for him to turn the page on his theses of democracy, and step out to pasture.
    Bake cakes and breads, write cook books etc.! These efforts will surely not leave us, his long-time admirers, with such a disappointing aftertaste.
    The rules of the political democracy under which he participated so assiduously, and with such erudition, in the 60’s/70’s no longer has anything to do with the non-fiction rules he is still playing by today.
    The daily “riot act” that is being read to us, the general populace, is utterly illegitimate fiction. It turns out, the system was a set-up from the beginning.
    It never really had anything to do with representative democracy, let alone direct democracy; only RN doesn’t seem to have cottoned on to this fact, despite the massive amounts of legitimate real data he still possesses in his little finger.
    In defiance of the god’s of learning,
    With deepest respect,
    Just another humble citizen

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