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.

Consider the current cultural conflicts over gender and sex. As the gay rights movement achieved its initial goals from the 1970s, overturning antisodomy laws and destigmatizing homosexuality, the movement expanded to include so many new causes that it required an acronym, LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, and more). Its leaders declared a new cause, same-sex marriage, which vanished after the Supreme Court legalized it nationally in 2015. Five years later, the Court extended civil rights protections to people’s sexual preferences.

What were activists to do? Gays could marry in every state, and the whole LGBTQIA+ alphabet was a protected class—what more could groups like the Human Rights Campaign or the National LGBTQ Task Force possibly demand from the government? What would get the attention of crusading journalists? An antigay hate crime would generate a brief publicity and fund-raising burst, but even progressive journalists struggled to sustain the groups’ narrative that America was a homophobic society.

The laws against homosexuality had been toppled. The culture that produced those laws has been overthrown, too. Most Americans now support same-sex marriage. The Pride flag flies at corporate headquarters, churches, schools, city halls, and the White House. Uttering once-common antigay slurs is now career suicide. Gay characters, long taboo in television scripts, are now practically obligatory. Gays once felt overwhelming social pressure to stay in the closet, but now many young adults are reluctant to admit to being heterosexuals, as reflected in the surge of young women classifying themselves as bisexual despite never having had sex with a woman.

So activists have moved the goalposts once again. It is no longer enough for conservative Christians to tolerate same-sex marriage—now they must be legally required to bake cakes and design web pages for the weddings. It is no longer enough to protect gay students from harassment—now these students must have access in elementary school libraries to how-to manuals for anal sex. Public schools must encourage prepubescent students to explore the many possible gender identities without their parents’ knowledge. Biological males self-identifying as females must be allowed to compete against females in sports. These new causes have been wildly unpopular, arousing opposition from homosexuals as well as heterosexuals, and have led to a decline in public support for the gay rights movement. But however much the backlash has hurt the original cause, the controversies keep activists in business.

Civil rights activists have responded to their movement’s great successes by setting new goals that directly contradict the original mission of integration and “complete equality before the law,” as the NAACP’s 1911 charter declared. After Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, black leaders pivoted from demanding equality to demanding special treatment. In 1966, Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King launched Operation Breadbasket, a boycott campaign against companies that failed to meet quotas for hiring blacks. The NAACP, whose original mission was to provide blacks with “employment according to their ability,” fought for affirmative-action programs that its own constituents disdained, as Gene Dattel recounts in Reckoning with Race. Bayard Rustin, who in 1963 had organized the historic March on Washington, criticized the movement’s new priorities by pointing to a poll in 1969 showing that the vast majority of blacks—“proud Negroes,” as he described them—rejected affirmative action in hiring or college admissions as reparation for past injustices. Rustin also criticized university activists’ creating departments of black studies, correctly foreseeing that the trend would result in a faculty chosen by “race, ideological purity, and political commitment—not academic competence.”

Affirmative action was originally supposed to be a “temporary measure,” as the Supreme Court put it in 1979, but it has become a permanent cause for civil rights activists. So have demands for government money, first for antipoverty programs and later for direct reparations to descendants of slaves. King and other leaders followed up their successes in the 1960s with calls for a “domestic Marshall Plan” and were rewarded with the Great Society programs of the 1960s, the start of a long-running “war on poverty” that has since cost an estimated $20 trillion in inflation-adjusted dollars. King predicted that these antipoverty programs would cause a “spectacular decline” in the welfare rolls, but they had the opposite effect and eventually aroused bipartisan criticism.

Civil rights groups tried but failed to stop President Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress from enacting welfare reform, and they struggled during the 1990s with declining membership, lower revenues, and staff layoffs. The movement had lost its sense of urgency. After all, by then it had succeeded in its fight to eliminate the legal barriers facing blacks, and popular attitudes about race had undergone a sea change. The Cosby Show was the most popular program on television for five years in the 1980s. Oprah Winfrey and Colin Powell were two of the most respected figures in America. Back in the 1950s, 96 percent of whites opposed interracial marriage, and a majority opposed integrating schools and neighborhoods. By the 1990s, the vast majority had rejected such views.

As the civil rights movement searched for new causes, no group shifted as adroitly as the Southern Poverty Law Center. The group launched in the 1970s to offer legal representation to individual victims of discrimination but then switched to filing lawsuits against chapters of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1986, the SPLC’s entire legal team resigned in protest—they’d signed up to help poor people, not sue an organization whose national membership barely eclipsed 10,000. But the Klan made an ideal villain for fund-raising appeals to northern liberals, and the SPLC prospered from the publicity about lawsuits that bankrupted chapters of the Klan.

Launched in the 1970s to represent individual victims of discrimination, the Southern Poverty Law Center pivoted to fighting against a supposed “rising tide of hate” nationwide—which has proved lucrative for fund-raising. (Rick Lewis/Alamy Stock Photo)

By the 1990s, virtually nothing was left of the Klan to sue, so the SPLC pivoted again. It changed the name of its “Klanwatch” project to “Hatewatch,” and began issuing reports listing a growing number of “hate groups” and “extremists” across America. Scholars, journalists, and nonprofits have repeatedly denounced SPLC’s blacklists, noting that its tallies include many “hate groups” that don’t exist, or are harmless (such as a Confederate memorabilia shop that made the list), or are mainstream conservative and Christian organizations that simply oppose progressive policies. The SPLC’s lists of dangerous “extremists” have included respected conservatives such as Charles Murray, Rand Paul, and Ben Carson. As Tyler O’Neil observed in Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the SPLC could itself be called a hate group, given how its irresponsible tactics have smeared political opponents and inflamed partisan rancor. But the organization’s scaremongering, however damaging to public debate in America, has been remarkably lucrative. The SPLC’s appeals to combat a “rising tide of hate” have brought in so much donor money that its endowment has soared above $600 million.

The NAACP also adapted by pivoting leftward, espousing causes unrelated to its original mission. For example, the group sought to appeal to progressive donors by joining campaigns against nuclear power and fossil fuels. While ostensibly nonpartisan (for tax purposes), the NAACP essentially became an arm of the Democratic Party as its leaders denounced Republican candidates and sided with Democrats on issues unpopular with its own constituency, including gay marriage and legalized abortion. Black parents have long been enthusiastic supporters of education vouchers and charter schools, but the NAACP has remained resolutely opposed. School choice has been called today’s most important civil rights issue—and for good reason, given the reams of evidence that minority students are the chief beneficiaries. But betraying these students enables the NAACP to keep collecting funds from teachers’ unions and the rest of the Democratic establishment.

Since overt racism became the ultimate taboo in America, activists and academics have shifted to identifying subtler varieties of prejudice, with limited success. They have decried “microaggressions,” “unconscious racism,” and “systemic racism,” but have struggled to raise money to fight these invisible enemies. Their claims that America was a “fundamentally racist country” became a tough sell after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. Considering Obama’s presidency as evidence of a “post-racial America” was a wonderful vision—unless you happened to be a civil rights activist contemplating a post-employment future.

Shortly before Obama’s inauguration, however, Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man, was fatally shot by a white police officer in Oakland, California, leading to headlines, rallies, and riots—and then more rallies and riots the following year, after the officer was convicted of manslaughter instead of murder. A new cause was born, though it was not until the case of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager fatally shot in Florida in 2012, that it acquired a name: Black Lives Matter. Activists and reporters from around the country flocked to rallies in Florida, and then to more rallies and riots in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, when another unarmed black man was killed by a police officer.

After George Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis in 2020, Black Lives Matter became one of the largest social movements in American history. Journalists lavished the group with attention, and corporations and donors sent it more than $90 million that year—even though the sorts of deaths that the group ostensibly existed to oppose were rare and unrepresentative. (The number of African Americans fatally shot by police annually constitute only 2.5 percent of black homicide victims, and studies have not demonstrated a pattern of racial bias in fatal shootings by police.) The protests and antipolice hostility produced what became known as the Ferguson Effect: a reduction in police activity that leads to a dramatic upsurge in homicide and other violent crimes—the victims of which are disproportionately black. Black Lives Matter not only failed to save black lives; its antipolice posture arguably led to thousands of additional black deaths. But as a full-employment program for civil rights activists, it was a resounding success.

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.”

Spencer’s Law has been reformulated by Stephen Davies of the Institute of Economic Affairs: “The degree of public concern and anxiety about a social problem or phenomenon varies inversely as to its real or actual incidence.” Thus, we obsess about racism today more than we did during the Jim Crow era. From 1990 to Obama’s election in 2008, the African American homicide rate fell by 50 percent—and then the Black Lives Matter signs sprouted on lawns across the country. From 1995 to 2010, the rate of sexual violence against women dropped by nearly 60 percent in America—and then began the panic chronicled in The Campus Rape Frenzy, the book by KC Johnson and Stuart Taylor Jr., debunking the mythical epidemic of sexual assaults occurring on university campuses. By 2017, corporate America had instituted strict punishments and mandatory training to prevent sexual harassment—and then came #MeToo. Public acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage reached an all-time high in 2023—and then the media breathlessly reported that gay activists had declared a “national state of emergency.”

As cigarette smoking declined, antismoking activists found a new target in nicotine vaping, even though it has proved effective in helping people quit tobacco. (Christian Horz/Alamy Stock Photo)

Several factors are responsible for this paradox. First is the negativity effect, or the brain’s innate bias to pay more attention to the negative than the positive. The better that things get, the harder we look to find something bad, a tendency termed “prevalence-induced concept change” by the social psychologists who demonstrated it in 2018, in a study published in Science. In one of the experiments, the psychologists showed people photos of faces and asked them to identify the ones with threatening expressions. As the series of photos progressed, fewer and fewer hostile faces appeared, but the people were so determined to see the negative that they started misclassifying the neutral faces as hostile. “When the world gets better,” explained one of the psychologists, Daniel Gilbert, “we become harsher critics of it, and this can cause us to mistakenly conclude that it hasn’t actually gotten better at all.”

As the world gets better—as people become richer, better educated, and longer-lived—we find new things to worry about and have more disposable income and free time to spend curing humanity’s woes, real or imagined. Our instinct to save others is noble, but it risks being corrupted. “As society grows wealthier,” the economist Donald Boudreaux observes, “the need to be saved by others from earthly misfortunes grows steadily less frequent and less dire while the itch to save others from earthly misfortunes grows steadily more frequent and more intense.” This itch explains why journalists and the public keep falling for hoaxers like the actor Jussie Smollett: the demand for racism vastly exceeds the supply. It’s not easy to meet the growing demand from saviors, given a shrinking supply of victims, but the potential rewards have inspired remarkable creativity—and there’s every reason to expect more in the future.

Antismoking activists have been not just creative but ruthless, keeping their jobs by opposing one of the most promising advances in public health. A decade ago, smoking rates among adults and teenagers fell sharply, thanks to the introduction of nicotine vaping. Medical authorities in Britain declared that it would be “unjust, irrational and immoral” to discourage the use of devices that eliminated at least 95 percent of the harm of tobacco and were singularly effective at getting smokers to quit. But for antismoking groups in America such as the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the creation of false scares about vaping generated publicity, terrified suburban parents, and allowed them to maintain their funding from wealthy donors like Michael Bloomberg and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

As threats to humanity diminish, the March of Dimes syndrome will lead to increasingly apocalyptic rhetoric, a strategy that environmentalists have already mastered. Last century, they warned that “overpopulation” would cause billions to starve to death, that the “energy crisis” would usher in a new “age of scarcity” as humanity ran out of fossil fuels, and that synthetic chemicals would cause a “cancer epidemic.” Those crises were all bogus, but they did at least involve basic necessities for survival and immediate threats to people’s lives. Today, humans live longer than ever, and we’re not running out of food or energy; yet green doomsayers have escalated to the even more improbable claim that humanity—which has thrived everywhere from the tropics to the Arctic—faces an “existential threat” because global temperatures could rise two to three degrees Celsius by the year 2100. 

The climate issue has even brought Jane Fonda back in the news and back to Washington, where she has been repeatedly arrested during “Fire Drill Fridays,” the weekly demonstrations that she organizes. Her leadership in addressing the “climate emergency” has been widely praised, though a few of her allies have raised some awkward questions about her activism back in 1979, at that first antinuke march in Washington. Fonda arguably did more than anyone to cripple the nuclear-power industry, by not only leading that initial movement but also by starring in the antinuke movie The China Syndrome. At least partly because of antinuclear activism, utilities switched to coal-burning plants that massively increased the carbon emissions that Fonda is now trying to eliminate. Two years ago, an interviewer with HuffPost gently asked her if she had any regrets about turning people against nuclear power. “No, they took the right message,” Fonda replied, and proceeded to denounce nuclear power yet again.

However wrong you might think Fonda has been about nuclear power and climate change, you have to give her credit for a certain tactical brilliance. Plenty of other activists have survived by finding a new problem to solve, but she helped create the problem herself and continues working to prevent the most practical solution. She has taken the March of Dimes syndrome to a whole new level that may deserve a term of its own. Call it the March of Jane syndrome.

Top Photo: The March of Dimes, formed in the 1930s to combat polio, achieved its goal with the vaccines of the 1950s—and then transitioned to other causes. (Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)


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