Suppose the government imposed a poll tax of, oh, $100,000 on citizens who wanted to participate in choosing the Congress or president.
That would be outrageous, and obviously, wrong.
Yet this nightmare plutocracy comes perilously close to where we're headed as campaign-finance laws are methodically dismantled.
The latest chapter in Democracy Devolves: Selling Government to the Highest Bidders unfolded in arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court this week. As usual, Kentucky's Sen. Mitch McConnell played a starring role.
At issue in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission is the limit on total contributions by an individual. The limit for the current two-year period is $123,200 — that's $48,600 to federal candidates and $74,600 to political party committees, far more than all but the richest Americans could afford.
The McCutcheon plaintiffs, including the Republican National Committee, are not asking the court to strike down the $5,200 limit on how much an individual can contribute to any one candidate in an election cycle.
But McConnell is. The Supreme Court granted the Republican Senate leader special status to seek an end to all limits on contributions to candidates and parties.
If the McCutcheon plaintiffs win, individuals could conceivably give $3.5 million in an election cycle to pick the government of their choice.
If McConnell prevails, the sky would be the limit.
The interests of average voters and modest donors would have no chance of competing with supporters who handed candidates checks for millions of dollars. Public trust, already shaky, would crumble if elected officials become so blatantly beholden to a few big donors.
But, wake up, you say, we're already there — thanks to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in 2010 and the Federal Election Commission's non-enforcement of campaign finance laws. Under the current system, corporations, unions and the wealthy launder their unlimited, and sometimes secret, contributions through committees and non-profits. But as far as empowering a few special interests and rich donors to control the government, the effect is the same.
That's a valid point, with one caveat. After the Watergate scandal produced historic reforms, the Supreme Court in 1976 upheld limits on individual contributions to candidates. The court cited the potentially corrupting effects of money passing directly from donor to candidate.
But in that case, Buckley v. Valeo, the court struck down non-voluntary limits on how much political candidates and campaigns can spend. It also struck down limits on how much individuals or groups can spend independently to elect a candidate, saying such limits violate the First Amendment.
Since then, the prohibition on coordination between independent spenders and candidates has become a fiction so thin it makes a fig leaf look bulky.
Defenders of democracy back to Theodore Roosevelt have fought to curb the poisoning of our political system by money infusions from wealthy individuals and corporations. But lately they've been losing.
Though McConnell failed to overturn the McCain-Feingold law in a Supreme Court case that bears his name, most of those reforms were lost later in Citizens United.
Reformers' response to Buckley v. Valeo was to offer candidates public financing in exchange for limiting their fund-raising and spending.
In 2008, Barack Obama became the first presidential candidate to opt out of public financing in order to raise and spend as much money as he could. Kentucky elected one governor who ran a partially publicly financed campaign before returning to the old way of would-be governors wooing state contractors and regulated industries for money.
Campaign finance reforms have generally sprung from periods of corruption so sickening to the public that lawmakers had to act. In the early 20th century, the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few individuals and monopolies was also a catalyst.
McConnell, who in recent years has even opposed public disclosure of political contributions, is doing his best to set the stage for another era of reform.