12/21/2012 02:54 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

The Tempest and The Tax

"I must obey. His art is of such pow'r..."
Caliban, The Tempest by William Shakespeare

Democrats lost the tax debate the moment they surrendered control of language - the moment they allowed the expiration of a temporary tax cut to be renamed a tax increase. Why? Because use of language is a very powerful art that we, like Caliban, are subject to. It is the art of using words to conjure meaning, transform issues, influence minds; and, as we approach financial doomsday it is an art wielded as masterfully by Republicans as it was by Prospero to control his slave Caliban. The result is an unexceptional tax on the wealthy being redefined as a weapon of class warfare.

When the Bush-Era tax cuts were first introduced in 2003, Republicans controlled the Senate by a slim margin and were able to pass the bill only by rolling it into a budget reconciliation measure, thereby avoiding a Democratic filibuster. But because reconciliation measures bypass normal legislative processes they are rightly subject to restrictions - in this case a "sunset provision" that required the tax cuts to expire in 2010 (though were subsequently extended twice by the Obama administration). How is it possible, then, that this temporal condition, a legally binding promise, is nowhere to be found in the fiscal cliff negotiations? Its abandonment has given life to a debate about a tax "increase" that is actually the expiration of a temporary (Latin temporarius meaning seasonal or lasting a short period of time) tax break for the wealthy, a short-term measure that should have ended two years ago.

Our antagonist is not the wizard Prospero who used language as magic to defeat his nemesis and control his slaves, but we do have villains and sorcery. One wizard, for example, managed to convince most Republicans in Congress to sign the Taxpayer Protection Pledge. Others used linguistic alchemy to disappear "temporary" from the conversation.Taken together Republican lawmakers have submitted themselves to a perverse promise: the very tax breaks they had agreed to let expire they have now vowed to preserve indefinitely.

The thing about language is that it's not just words. Through coercion and persuasion language is in fact an amazingly efficient source of power, unconstrained by time and space. Redefining the 2003 tax cuts does not merely result in a semantic transformation - the force of the magic, the tempest, the spell is something more. It has changed the public and political ethos and the nature of the fiscal cliff negotiations. It is forcing policy driven by the few to benefit the wealthy and demand more from the 99%. If tax rates for the wealthy do not return to what they were under President Clinton (when the budget was balanced), revenue will be squeezed from those who have less.

Perhaps the most astonishing part of this story is that it isn't a "story". The manipulation of what the tax rates mean is so obvious and so inimical to democratic processes, but nobody is talking about it including Democratic lawmakers and "progressive" media. Why have Democrats thrown in the towel without a fight and adopted the language of a "tax increase"? Why are we so comfortable with language that has transformed the narrative from one that helps most of us to one that hurts most of us? How did we allow a negotiation that never should have been to push the tax threshold to $400,000? So far, we are complicit in the scheme and time is running out. That's the thing about the art that "is of such pow'r," its subjects are bound unless - through language, learning and will - the spell is broken.