Tanton may not make headlines, but even a casual dusting of today's anti-immigration movement reveals his fingerprints everywhere. Turn on Lou Dobbs and you'll see experts from the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the nation's oldest and most influential immigration restriction group, which Tanton founded in 1979. Scan the newspapers and you'll find Republican lawmakers reporting a tidal wave of calls from members of NumbersUSA, which Tanton cofounded. Watch the committee hearings on C-SPAN and you'll hear anti-immigration talking points lifted straight from the Center for Immigration Studies, another Tanton creation. And on and on.
As Hayes discovered, Tanton's seemingly fringe beliefs got their start in an odd mishmash of environmental conservation (he was a committee chair for a Sierra Club chapter) and population control (he helped start northern Michigan's first Planned Parenthood clinic). He was heavily influenced by Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich's 1968 book The Population Bomb, which predicted catastrophic worldwide famine thanks to the exponential growth in population and incremental growth in food production.
So how did we end up where we are today?
In a nutshell, Tanton determined that immigrants were the primary actors in his apocalyptic nightmare (because they have more babies than non-immigrants), then realized that his numbers-based argument wouldn't carry water with the thousands of lunkheaded fundraisers he'd need to get out the message. So he found a subject with the emotional power to resonate with Real Amurricuns: xenophobia.
Crisscrossing the country, Tanton found little interest in his conservation-based arguments for reduced immigration, but kept hearing the same complaint. "'I tell you what pisses me off,'" Tanton recalls people saying. "'It's going into a ballot box and finding a ballot in a language I can't read.' So it became clear that the language question had a lot more emotional power than the immigration question."As a result of his anti-immigration beliefs, Tanton ended up taking money from a truckload of dubious groups, the kind of people who think eugenics hasn't gotten a fair shake. Oddly enough, some people, like the Southern Poverty Law Center, thought this was enough to label him a racist. Crazy, right?
Tanton tried to persuade FAIR to harness this "emotional power," but the board declined. So in 1983, Tanton sent out a fundraising letter on behalf of a new group he created called U.S. English. Typically, Tanton says, direct mail garners a contribution from around 1 percent of recipients. "The very first mailing we ever did for U.S. English got almost a 10 percent return," he says. "That's unheard of." John Tanton had discovered the power of the culture war.