The conservative movement needs to be aware that a “propaganda war” is being waged on America. 

“Policy obviously matters,” John Tillman, chairman and CEO of the Illinois Policy Institute, says. “That’s what all of us are trying to advance … the foundational principles of the founding of this country, and what advances human freedom and human flourishing. That’s our product, but we’re doing this in a wartime environment.” 

Through his work at the Illinois Policy Institute and The Heritage Foundation’s Feulner Institute, Tillman is seeking to advance pro-American policies in ways that resonate with all Americans. 

Tillman joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss the importance of advancing pro-American policies and how conservatives can use social media and other mediums to promote a message of freedom. 

We also cover these stories:

  • Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., and 29 other GOP members send a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin asking him to take action against the “left-wing extremism” in America’s military. 
  • Tennessee becomes the latest state in America to ban critical race theory from being taught in public schools.
  • Chip and Joanna Gaines of the famed HGTV show “Fixer Upper” are making headlines for a recent campaign contribution. 

Rachel del Guidice: We’re joined on The Daily Signal by John Tillman, chairman and CEO of the Illinois Policy Institute. John, thank you for being with us on The Daily Signal.

John Tillman: It’s great to be with you.

Del Guidice: It’s great having you with us. So, just to start off, can you tell us about the Illinois Policy Institute?

Tillman: Well, we’re a think tank. Everybody loves a think tank, right? But we’re really a marketing organization hiding inside of a think tank.

From the very beginning, when I got involved in 2007, we focused on taking a marketing-centric approach to selling the greatest force for good ever created in the human sphere, which is free enterprise and the founding principles of this country, and that’s what we’ve been doing in Illinois.

Started out with a couple of people and now we have a robust staff, a robust budget, and we’re fighting the great battle in what people perceive to be a blue state, but we hope to turn purple and eventually red.

Del Guidice: Well, more big picture, but John, what’s at stake for the conservative movement when it comes to just messaging to the broader public?

Tillman: I think one of the biggest things that our entire movement has to learn is that we’re in a propaganda war. This is not a policy war. Policy obviously matters. That’s what all of us are trying to advance, … the foundational principles of the founding of this country, and what advances human freedom and human flourishing, that’s our product, but we’re doing this in a wartime environment. And it is very much like the Cold War and it is a propaganda war.

We need to think of ourselves as Radio Free Europe. We need to think of ourselves as Radio Liberty, and we are teleporting our message, if you will, in a variety of ways—social media, the entire digital platforms, direct mail events, television—on the benefits of our ideas compared to what the radicalized left is doing.

We’re for setting people free to pursue their dreams and therefore drawing people [out of] dependency and decline and despair. And we have a great message, but we have to learn how to sell it in the language the audience consumes.

Del Guidice: On that note, you’re also involved in the Feulner Institute at The Heritage Foundation. How would you encourage and what are you working on in terms of driving messaging and engagement strategies that really expand and reach, especially, American parents who are concerned about civics right now?

Tillman: Well, our marketing agency, where I’m co-founder and chairman, Iron Light, is working with the Feulner Institute and Angela [Sailor, vice president of the institute,] and everybody there to advance an entire recommitment to teaching civics at the grassroots level.

One of the things we know is that parents, in particular, are being intimidated by the radicalized left, who are taking over their local school districts, local school boards. The teachers unions are really running the show now and subordinating governance, which is supposedly the elected school boards, to the whims of the teachers union.

What the Feulner Institute is doing is working with parents in Florida as a test case to help them learn how to fight back, how to message, how to engage and really retake control of their local communities and particularly the schools.

Del Guidice: What would you say to parents who might not know about the Feulner Institute, what they’re offering?

I know particularly, one mom, who she was talking about her son’s classroom, and they were pushing this gender ideology in his classroom. And one of the moms decided to talk about it on a Facebook page, and she got bullied out of that.

So for parents who do feel overwhelmed and aren’t sure how to address this as this continues on, what would be your message to them?

Tillman: The Feulner Institute at The Heritage Foundation is trying to help that exact woman you just talked about. The exact idea is to help empower her first, by educating her, bring her into a group that has united in common purpose to fight back. And the first step is, before you sort of launch your Facebook effort, is to learn how to fight back in a way that is effective.

But nevertheless, you have to go forward courageously. And sometimes you’re going to lose some of those battles and you might get bullied out of a particular Facebook group, and that’s OK, you just got to come back and reengage in different venues, either on Facebook or elsewhere. And that’s the whole point of this, is to teach people how to engage in civics.

But I think a larger point that I think is really exciting about what the Feulner Institute is doing is learning how to communicate with people through what we call centrist messaging.

One of the things that conservatives have to learn to accept and to do is to not just do red-meat messaging all of the time. Red-meat messaging works with, obviously, a significant portion of conservatives, but it alienates people in the middle. And what we need to do right now is reach people where they’re living and sell in the language they consume.

And that is one of the key initiatives within this effort that the Feulner Institute and Angela and the team are doing, which is sell in the language the audience consumes, not red-meat messaging, but meeting them with the ideas of fairness, the idea of how to lift people up in a fair way and reach them emotionally, as opposed to through sort of what we always like to talk about on the right, which is rational thought.

Del Guidice: On that note, how would you like to see the use of social media—we’ve talked about Facebook a little bit—build that robust coalition in the conservative movement? So many people are on Instagram and TikTok, and of course, Twitter has huge followings for the left and right everywhere. How can we use social media better?

Tillman: We can use social media better, taking the point I just made a moment ago, when you see somebody taking a position or radicalizing your local school board or something going on in your local community that you’re unhappy with, the response shouldn’t always be to start going and bantering with them or debating with them or counterattacking with them. It’s better to try to find common ground first. What is the issue they’re trying to solve? And find places where you can agree.

One of the ways, for example, that that has been pretty effective is, shouldn’t we take politics out of our school?

In our culture today, whether you’re a conservative or a liberal, a Democrat or Republican, or an independent, everything is getting divisive. Shouldn’t our schools focus on teaching our children the basics of education, reading, writing, arithmetic, how to be a good, engaged citizen? And shouldn’t we take these divisive issues out of our schools and let us handle that in our communities, outside of our educational institutions?

You’ll find that the vast majority of people, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans or independents, agree with that sentiment.

So, find the common ground first. Then once you find that common ground, the people who attack you, put them on defense: “You’re in the minority. You’re the one who’s actually at the extreme. Most people don’t want to do what you want to do. Most people just want to have our schools be focused on a good civics and fundamental basic education. That’s what we should be doing.” And make them defend the extremism of their position.

Del Guidice: The Washington Post actually recently did a hit job on you. Can you tell us about that?

Tillman: It was wonderful. Anytime you make the front page of The Washington Post, it’s always fun. My wife was very happy they chose a picture she thought was a good one from when we won a Supreme Court case at the Liberty Justice Center back in 2018.

But The Washington Post wrote a piece about the American Culture Project, which I founded in 2019. It’s run by Christina Rasmussen, who used to be the president and chief operating officer of the Illinois Policy Institute, briefly served as chief of staff to former Gov. [Bruce] Rauner in Illinois. She now lives in Richmond, Virginia, on maternity leave right now, just had her fourth child, her first son.

But anyway, the American Culture Project is focused on engaging with communities, particularly the 50 congressional districts that are the most competitive in the country.

One of the things I’ve been fascinated with is that Democrats and Republicans alike rely on wave elections to see who controls Congress. Is it going to be Speaker [Kevin] McCarthy or will Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi continue?

And my philosophy on this, after thinking about this after 2018, was, we can’t rely on wave elections or unicorn candidates to determine who controls Congress. The right should be building permanent infrastructure in the most leveraged geographic districts in the country, and that is the most competitive 50 congressional districts.

So we’re taking our “earned audience strategy,” where we use digital tools and social media tools to attract people into what we call our active user database.

So through Facebook, Twitter, and other channels, we put content on the issues of the day in front of them. We asked them to join us by giving us their first name, last name, and ZIP code, and then we engage them on an ongoing basis on the issues of the day.

Through doing this, we want to get to what we’ll call a critical mass in each of those districts so that we can have an outsized influence on those congressional districts going forward.

Del Guidice: Speaking of reaching new audiences, what role does the power of story play?

Tillman: The power of story is the pivotal role. Really, when you think about human communications throughout history, there are really two drivers of how things stick. It’s the power of story and narrative and characters, who are the characters in the story? Think about your favorite movie, whatever your favorite movie is. What’s your favorite movie, Rachel?

Del Guidice: I love “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Tillman: “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Del Guidice: Yeah, it’s a good story.

Tillman: And who in that movie do you really enjoy? What characters do you like?

Del Guidice: I mean, there’s so many.

Tillman: Is it Clarence? I mean, Clarence is kind of amazing, right? Isn’t Clarence great?

Del Guidice: Clarence is incredible. But Jimmy Stewart is legendary.

Tillman: Jimmy Stewart’s entire character. I always thought his wife’s role was underrated.

Del Guidice: Very much so, yes.

Tillman: But think about that movie, there are two things that drive that movie. Obviously, the whole point of the narrative of that movie is Uncle Billy loses the money, he’s going to go bankrupt, the bank examiners are coming, and then he has this despair. And Clarence, the angel, shows him what his life would be, what the community would be like without him, and what a difference he’s made in people’s lives.

And throughout that narrative of that, he’s lived a difference-making life and he’s changed his community for the better, that’s the narrative. So he’s a hero, just like his little brother or his older brother was, who went off to the war.

In the end, of course, you have that magic moment where Clarence gets his wings.

So you have both character and story and that’s why that movie [is] so iconic in the country’s sort of zeitgeist, if you will. I mean, think about it, you could have picked any movie. I know that movie cold, don’t I? And so do most of the people listening right now, and that’s why story matters.

Del Guidice: It’s so true. Well, The Heritage Foundation commissioned a national survey on civics. That’s going to be really soon. Can you tell us about it?

Tillman: They did a whole bunch of work and really a deep dive, a very sophisticated deep dive, on particularly those centrist voters we were talking about, trying to understand how suburban moms and dads would, especially moms and parents in general, feel about what’s going on in the country; what kind of messaging works with them; what kind of messaging draws them into engagement.

What this revealed is something—actually, we did some research on back in 2013 in Alaska, a very similar concept. Although I would have to say that Heritage had a much bigger budget than I did and did a little bit more sophisticated tests.

But the basic idea is this, red-meat messaging works for the base, but it alienates the middle, as I said earlier. Centrist messaging—same principle, same policy, same call to action—works with the centrist person you’re trying to move to a call to action and it also works with the base.

So what we’re learning is that for all of us who are conservatives, you don’t have to sell out your principles, but you have to speak differently. Instead of trying to appeal to people through the brain, we’re trying to get to them through the heart, and that’s what the messaging was about.

So there’s an effort going on that’ll be expanded in Florida to level up Florida in a civics education way and empower parents to get engaged. And as that scales and becomes successful and we have some experience and learn from it, it will be scaled out across the country.

I think it’s just a great example of Heritage pivoting to adapt to the moment we’re in, which is that we have to reengage and compete in hand-to-hand combat in the trenches, in communities all over this country. And that’s why that work is so important.

Del Guidice: Speaking of parents, I know Angela and other people we’ve worked with, you’ve worked with, have said that parents really feel overwhelmed and overworked, and don’t really have time to take on these issues that are being discussed in schools across the country. So how would you say conservatives can make civics a really critical and urgent issue and help people and families, especially, get involved?

Tillman: It’s interesting, the left never seems to have a problem finding people who are willing to show up, do they? And I think the difference is that the left, government is their business. Their entire livelihoods, generally speaking, depend on controlling the commanding heights of government.

Whether you’re a public sector union, a teacher in a union, or a government worker in a union, whether you’re a nonprofit that gets most of your money from government, if you’re in the trial bar, you need the government and the legal system to allow you to extract wealth and income from the private sector. So there’s a lot of incentives on the left to be activists.

On the right, we don’t have that so much. Our sort of natural inclination is we want to go live our lives, raise our families, engage in our communities, and pursue our business lives. So to get people to engage in activism in the way we’re talking about is very much difficult and we have to approach it differently.

And I think the whole point of this program is to reduce the friction. We want to make it easy, simple, understandable, and help people become part of a team, a project larger than themselves that engages their community, and do that through the lens of parenting.

I think despite the fact people are frustrated with the lack of time, on the one hand, one thing they’ve had revealed to them is the truth of what’s going on in schools all across the country and just how badly their children are being educated in, theoretically, some of the best public schools and, of course, the worst public schools across the country.

So parents are actually at a unique point right now where they’re highly engaged and unhappy across ideological lines. So this is the right time to try to teach, recruit, learn, and reduce that friction to engagement.

Del Guidice: You’re also really passionate about education choice. Can you tell us a little bit about your passion on that and why it’s so important?

Tillman: Many years ago, I worked in the call center business, and long before I even thought about getting involved in public policy and politics. … I was in several different locations with this, but I had an office on the western suburb of Chicago, right on the border of Chicago, Oak Park, Illinois.

When I started working there, we had 80 employees, 60 of them were white and about 20 of them were African American. And a few years later we had 300 employees, and 250 of them were African American and about 50 of them were white.

What I did when I got there is, I’d come from integrated offices in Detroit and Washington, but for whatever reason, that office, even though it’s a very integrated and diverse place, was not recruiting people out of the city of Chicago.

What I’d already learned and what became very apparent to me was the key to that business, it was the call center business, was the people’s motivation. Why did they want a second job working part time in a call center, which is a very difficult job, as you probably know? Motivation mattered.

And what I discovered was African Americans who lived in the city of Chicago, when they would come in and apply for the job, their No. 1 motivator was they wanted to get their kid out of the Chicago public school systems.

They took on a second job or [worked] an extra 20, 25 hours a week in addition to their full-time job to save enough money to either move to the suburbs to a good school district or to move their kid out of a public school into a private school within the city of Chicago.

They were exercising school choice in the only way they knew how. That is wrong and unfair. And every child should be able to get a great education no matter where they live, what ZIP code they’re born into, or what family circumstance.

One of the studies we did years ago discovered that in the charter school system at the time, the average African American kid was graduating on par with statewide kids all over the state of Illinois. So the basic point is all kids, including African American kids and Hispanic kids in urban America, can compete if they’re given a chance. And that’s why choice matters.

Del Guidice: Let’s talk about issues in your home state for a little bit. In Illinois, I know your organization had a paper out saying the state lost, I think, 79,000 residents in 2019.

Tillman: We’re still looking for them.

Del Guidice: And then, I think this is the biggest drop, I think, since World War II. What’s going on here? What’s playing into this?

Tillman: We started talking about the exodus, as it is now called, probably about 10 years ago. When we first started talking about this, that Illinois was leading the country in domestic out-migration, the political leaders at the time used to say, “Oh, it’s just because people are moving to warmer weather.”

And then I pointed out that we lose population to every one of our neighboring states, including Wisconsin, which is north of us; Michigan, which is north of us; even Minnesota, which is north of us. In fact, Illinois loses population of 43 of the other 49 states.

And sure, disproportionately, more people go to Arizona, we are sitting now in Texas and Florida. But the reason we’re losing population is because people no longer feel it’s a fair deal there. We have about the sixth- or seventh-highest overall tax burden in the country, the highest property taxes in the country. I think sixth- or seventh-highest sales taxes.

The only redeeming thing we really have is a flat and fairly low income tax. And ironically, they just tried to pass a progressive tax ballot measure last November. And thankfully, we defeated that. But people feel like the opportunity is better elsewhere and that is one of the core things we have to change in Illinois and we’re working to do that.

Del Guidice: That was actually one of my next questions, and if there’s anything else you want to discuss on this. So, Illinois is a very blue state and Chicago, as you’ve mentioned, is a really liberal city. Are there any policies that have been enacted in the state or in Chicago that results should serve as a warning to the rest of the country?

Tillman: Oh, a bill was just passed on critical race theory, teaching that in the schools, making that mandatory, essentially making K-12 education a training ground for left-wing activists. We’re working to roll that back and combat that.

Obviously, progressive taxes, there’s nine states that don’t have any income taxes at all, so that’s a flat tax of zero. And then I think we’re only one or two states that have a flat tax. Our tax rate is 4.95%.

The progressive tax mindset, I think, is the key point here. The left is insatiable when it comes to resources from the public. They see taxpayers as an ATM device that you just extract ever more money from. And what Illinois is showing is that there is a limit and people will eventually relocate.

But going back to policies, I think some of the labor laws that are being passed by the radicalized, the General Assembly—although the General Assembly is actually getting a little bit better. We’re having the most successful legislative session we’ve ever had.

Thirteen of our 15 bills are sponsored by Democrats and are getting floor votes right now. And they’re all pro-freedom, pro-free market bills because we’ve taken a sort of centrist approach to selling it, even though there’s still fundamental conservative issues, and we’re trying to find that common ground I talked about earlier. So we’re actually having a pretty good legislative session.

So it’s really bizarre because you have this paradox between removing more bills in the General Assembly, controlled by Democrats, than we have in years; at the same time, some of this crazy radicalized legislation is moving forward.

But what I think it shows you, for all of us, is we have to learn how to engage when Democrats have control while still trying to work on the political side. For those who do politics, obviously, Heritage doesn’t do politics, and neither does Illinois Policy Institute, but others do, and we have to learn how to compete better there while also making the best of what you can on the legislative side.

I also think I want to just give you a friendly amendment to Illinois being a very blue state. Actually, we have a very blue city, the city of Chicago in Cook County, very blue. The rest of the state is quite red. And part of the reason Illinois has turned blue electorally is because Republicans gave up.

In 2004, George W. Bush lost Illinois by 10 points to John Kerry. And unfortunately, too many Illinois Republicans and donors said that was a reason to give up. And we’ve come in and we’ve been fighting ever since and building it back.

In 2008, Barack Obama lost by 10 points to John McCain in Texas, and the Democrats took that as a sign they should deeply invest in Texas, and they are, and they’re making it more competitive. That’s a lesson for us. We need to never give up on territory. We need to fight everywhere and that’s why Illinois matters to the rest of the country.

Del Guidice: Also in Chicago, there are about 41 monuments that are under review for removal. And I know the city is asking for feedback on what should happen. What is happening there, and what do you think should ultimately happen?

Tillman: What is happening there is a great example of modern virtue signaling. It’s all just a preposterous, idiotic—let’s see, what other adjectives can I use that show my disgust for what is going on?

I mean, [Abraham] Lincoln statues are being challenged. When you’re challenging the Great Emancipator, that his statues should come down, that tells you that this isn’t really about equity, it is not about equality, and it is actually not about race. It’s about destroying the very essence of the fabric of the country and what knits us together. And I think that we need to start fighting back on that and saying that out loud. Where does it stop?

Del Guidice: Also, in Illinois, gas prices are really high. They’ve hit over $3. How is this impacting the people of Illinois? What’s happening there?

Tillman: I felt pretty bad about our high gas prices, but I just came here from California and I filled up my rental tank at $4.23 a gallon, so I was feeling really good about Illinois. But boy, those Californians, they are taking it in the wallet.

What’s happening, obviously, the tragedy of rising gas prices because of higher gas taxes, I think we now have the third-highest gas tax in the country, it’s primarily gas taxes. The cause of rising gas prices is not because fuel is more expensive or oil is more expensive, it’s because taxes have gone up because government is more expensive.

And the problem with it is for people that are working paycheck to paycheck and living on the edge, it’s literally taking food off the table. It perhaps is preventing a child from participating in the arts, maybe dance, or music lessons. It’s [preventing], perhaps boys, who are very challenging to raise, from participating in sports and channeling their energy in a constructive way. So it’s changing people’s lives for the [worse] because the government can’t get ahold of its fiscal health.

Del Guidice: Before we end, I wanted to ask you about how conservatives avoid being canceled on social media. We’ve seen so much of this happen across the country, I know, on different small businesses. The Small Business Association, who helps businesses bring on the message of tax reform, that’s nonpartisan, they have been shut down on social media. So how would you say conservatives can avoid that in the future?

Tillman: I’m not sure I can tell you how to avoid being canceled. The easiest way to avoid being canceled is to not participate, right? If you withdraw, you won’t be canceled. But I don’t think that’s the solution. I think the solution has to be to engage, to be sensible in your engagement, to understand what the rules of the platforms are, and do your very best to not violate those rules.

But even sometimes you can post the most innocent thing that should not be canceled or flagged or have your account temporarily suspended, and if they decide after the fact, they don’t like it, they will cancel you or suspend you.

But the safety comes with more people rebelling. So I actually think the solution is get canceled by the millions. And if they start canceling us by the millions, it will actually have an impact on their bottom line. And so in the long run, let’s go for it. Let’s all get canceled together. There’s safety in numbers, and it’s the numbers that create an effect on those doing the canceling.

Del Guidice: Well, John, that’s a great note to end on. Thank you for joining us on The Daily Signal.

Tillman: Great to be with you.