In Tom Scocca’s essay entitled “On Smarm,” he tackles a number of subjects. But mostly, he denounced the rise of smarm in popular discourse. He begins with a discussion of snark, which is referred to by many as a low and bitter form of communication. Snark is a reaction to smarm. Scocca defines smarm as “a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.” Speaking in smarm means a kind of anti-negativity that also erases content for the sake of exalting civility and what is “right” and “just.”
Smarm developed as a kind of authority. Scocca writes “Smarm hopes to fill the cultural or political or religious void left by the collapse of authority, undermined by modernity and postmodernity. It’s not enough anymore to point to God or the Western tradition or the civilized consensus for a definitive value judgment. Yet a person can still gesture in the direction of things that resemble those values, vaguely.” By allying themselves with the vague authority of the “high road,” those who speak in smarm are excused from discussing real issues because smarm takes the conversation to realm of what’s good and bad or what’s right and wrong.
Scocca applied this phenomenon to the 2012 election in discussing both Romney and Obama’s use of smarm in different contexts. In the closing statement of a debate with Romney in 2012 Obama said:
I believe that the free enterprise system is the greatest engine of prosperity the world’s ever known. I believe in self-reliance and individual initiative and risk-takers being rewarded. But I also believe that everybody should have a fair shot and everybody should do their fair share and everybody should play by the same rules, because that’s how our economy is grown. That’s how we built the world’s greatest middle class (Scocca).
Scocca comments that the ideas in this phrase like “prosperity,” “self-reliance,” “fair shot” and “the world’s greatest middle class” are indisputable, and would be used by anyone who was running for political office. These kinds of statements are useless because they say nothing of value.
Another instance of smarm in political rhetoric, was when the now infamous video in which Romney dismissed 47 percent of voters came to light. Romney deployed a heavy layer of smarm to deflect the blame away from him and toward the Obama campaign. He did this by “[clambering] up to a new higher ground, deploring the divisiveness of dwelling on his divisiveness. He had been attacked as a person, the kind of person who would write off 47 percent of the public. How low could the Obama campaign get? What ever happened to changing the tone?” (Scocca) By relying on smarm rather than addressing the issue at hand, Romney undermined democratic deliberation and turned it into a game of finger pointing.
These examples coupled with the definition of smarm reminded me of the norms of civility Jeffrey Alexander discussed in “The Performance of Politics.” The binaries described by Alexander consisted of avoid symbolic pollution while attributing it to one’s opponent. This is done through political civility, by aligning yourself with what is wholly democratic and just, and attributing incivility to your opponent, one can earn the trust of the public while maintaining the dynamic in which voters are considered smart and rational.
Alexander gives an example of political civility and working the binaries that’s quite similar to Scocca’s telling of Romney’s reaction to the 47 percent video. When Obama announced he would withdraw from the public financing system he was met with criticism from Republicans and even his own supporters. Obama turned away from public financing despite his previous and very public support for it, likely because he was going to be able to raise a significantly greater amount of money with online fundraising. Despite the anger at his decision, Obama was able to work the binaries and claim that his abandonment of public financing actually brought him closer “into alignment with the more positive side of democratic discourse” (98). He defaulted on his earlier promise in order to better defend civil society against the Republicans and their huge sums of cash, not to increase his own fundraising power. To scold Obama on his financing was to go against a fair democratic fight.
With these ideas side by side, smarm and political civility appear to serve a similar function. They seek to boil things down into the simplest of terms in order to paint opponents as uncivil or bad while deflecting blame and negative attention from oneself. So, what are the effects of this? Political civility appears to serve the function of maintaining calm and respectful deliberation in the political sphere, but when it crosses into smarm territory, is it helping or harming? Scocca writes “A civilization that speaks in smarm is a civilization that has lost its ability to talk about purposes at all.” Smarm and politically civility clearly have strategic uses for politicians due to their abilities to distract and reflect, however, democratic debate could suffer if constituents allow candidates and representatives to revert to smarm instead of engaging in real deliberation.
Alexander, Jeffrey C. The performance of politics: Obama’s victory and the democratic struggle for power. Oxford University Press, 2010.
Scocca, Tom. “On Smarm.” Gawker. 5 Dec. 2013. Web. 06 Dec. 2013.