JOHN TIERNEY: The March of Dimes Syndrome.

In the spring of 1979, a few weeks after the partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, more than 65,000 people marched on the United States Capitol chanting “No Nukes, No Nukes.” As a young reporter at the Washington Star assigned to cover this new movement, I interviewed march organizers and noticed that all of them had previously organized protests against the Vietnam War. This struck me as curious: How had they suddenly become so passionate and knowledgeable about nuclear power?

I later learned that a term exists for this phenomenon—the March of Dimes syndrome—and that the tendency affects many other movements, too. Why, last year, did the Human Rights Campaign declare a “national state of emergency” for LGBT people? Why was the election of the first black American president followed by the Black Lives Matter movement? Why have reports of “hate groups” risen during the same decades that racial prejudice has been plummeting? Why, during a long and steep decline in the incidence of sexual violence in America, did academics, federal officials, and the #MeToo movement discover a new “epidemic of sexual assault”?

These supposed crises are all examples of the March of Dimes syndrome, named after the organization founded in the 1930s to combat polio. The March helped fund the vaccines that eventually ended the polio epidemics—but not the organization, which, after polio’s eradication, changed its mission to preventing birth defects. Its leaders kept their group going by finding a new cause, just as antiwar activists did after achieving their goal of ending the Vietnam War. The Three Mile Island accident offered new fund-raising opportunities and a new platform for veterans of the antiwar movement such as Jane Fonda and her husband Tom Hayden, who both addressed the crowd at that first antinuke rally.

For career activists, success is a threat. They can never declare mission accomplished.

* * * * * * * * *

The March of Dimes syndrome is an ancient social affliction that is especially virulent today and destined to get even worse. Kings, generals, and high priests have always tried to maintain power by declaring new crusades—new enemies to conquer, new sins to extirpate. But it has gotten steadily easier for leaders to rally the public because of another phenomenon, known as Spencer’s Law, named after the Victorian sociologist Herbert Spencer, who observed a paradox in the reform movements of his day to combat poverty, hunger, child labor, illiteracy, and alcoholism.

These problems were widespread in Britain at the end of the eighteenth century. Then, as the Industrial Revolution lifted incomes during the nineteenth century, the working classes saw a dramatic improvement in their diets and living conditions. By mid-century, most Britons were literate because children were going to school instead of being put to work. Alcohol consumption fell dramatically. But it was only late in the nineteenth century, after so much progress had already occurred, that reformers captured the public’s attention with campaigns to help the needy, mandate universal education, and pass temperance laws. “The more things improve,” Spencer wrote in 1891, “the louder become the exclamations about their badness.”

Read the whole thing.