Reviving a Politics of Hope, Aspiration, and Optimism with John Tillman

The following is an interview conducted by Profectus co-editors Ben Wiltedink and Clay Routledge with John Tillman, CEO of the American Culture Project and chair of the Illinois Policy Institute. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ben Wilterdink: Thank you for listening to this edition of the Profectus Interview. Profectus Magazine is dedicated to kickstarting a cultural conversation around the key drivers of human flourishing, progress, and the barriers that prevent individuals from reaching their full potential. I’m Ben Wilterdink, and today my co-editor, Clay Routledge, and I are joined by John Tillman. John is CEO of the American Culture Project and chair of the Illinois Policy Institute, which under his leadership between 2007 and 2021 became one of the most influential state think tanks in the country. John has founded and chairs numerous other enterprises within the liberty space, such as the Liberty Justice Center, Iron Light, and the Franklin News Foundation. John, thank you for being with us today.

John Tillman: Great to be with you, Ben. Glad I could join you and have a good conversation.

Ben Wilterdink: Absolutely. Great. Well, just to kick things off and get started. One thing that’s been on my mind a lot, I know you’re very familiar with the liberty space, and you’re one of the titans of it and have founded a lot of different organizations and have really been working hard here for quite a while now. We’ve seen some movement in the past maybe 10 years or so, maybe a little bit less than that, where some on the right are shifting away from market-oriented solutions. I think there’s a little bit more questioning of whether those market-oriented solutions can really solve the problems that we’re facing. For instance, Oren Cass was Mitt Romney’s domestic policy advisor, and he went on to start the American Compass. He says, for conservatives, what’s got to give is the market fundamentalism that has constrained their thinking and frustrated their own goals. That’s a sentiment echoed from Senator J. D. Vance and some others in the national conservatism movement. Can you give us a little bit of your insight of what you think is going on there? Do they have a point? Maybe where are they right, where are they wrong? How do you view that shift?

John Tillman: I think we’re in a very turbulent time in terms of the intellectual leadership and policymaking on the right, and I think you’ve outlined some of the problems really, really well. I think it’s unfortunate. I don’t think the problem is that markets don’t work. I think there’s a fundamental underlying premise in everything you just said, that these advocates for a more interventionist governmental approach are missing. That is, first of all, we don’t really have a market-based economy. We have a highly regulated economy. The idea that this is somehow a free market country at this stage of our regulatory imposition by the federal government, state government, and our local governments is ridiculous. We don’t have a market economy. We have a mixed economy at best, and I would say a market economy dominated by the government or regulatory state. It’s a false conclusion to say that markets don’t work when you’re operating in that environment.

The second mistake in the thinking, in my humble opinion, is that they’re missing the whole point. The whole point of a freedom economy, a liberty-based economy of which markets are derivative, is not to solve problems. This is not a utilitarian undertaking. The purpose is to create freedom for individuals to pursue human flourishing as they see best. What we happen to find out is that when the construct of a society is liberty based and freedom based, and therefore people’s economic activities are unfettered by an excessive government, ironically, it is wonderful at helping poor people rise. It’s wonderful at reducing income inequality by helping poor people rise faster than overall incomes are rising. The reason you have an income gap that the left really focuses on, and some people on the right are now focusing on—and there’s even some prominent people on the right talking about a guaranteed basic income, which I think is insanity—is because we have too many restraints on helping poor people rise.

We don’t need to make wealthy people grow slower in terms of their incomes. We need to help poor people and middle class people rise faster. I could go on about that, but I think that’s the fundamental difference I have. I think it’s very misguided and we’re going to have quite a battle, and I hope the point of view I have wins.

Ben Wilterdink: Yeah, I think it probably won’t be surprising to you that I share much of what you just said. It’s been a little bit disappointing to see some of the evolution on the right or within some of these institutions. I think one challenge for me is, politically speaking, it just seems like there’s not too much appetite for people to really embrace that style of thinking in terms of markets and letting people rise and do what’s best for their own lives. One example we just saw, President Biden in the State of the Union Address, pretty much the one thing that everybody agrees on in Congress is that we can never touch entitlements, is the takeaway from that.

When it comes to getting the government out of the way in sectors like healthcare or some of the other sectors that they completely dominate and really distort how things are working, it seems like an uphill battle to get people to prioritize understanding it in this way and making forward progress. Do you think it’s as bleak as maybe I’m looking at it, or do you think that this is maybe something people are more attuned to or more receptive to than it might seem?

John Tillman: Well, this is a gigantic question, and there’s no simple answer to it. First of all, I don’t think it’s as bleak as you think. I think it is incredible. I’m old enough to remember, I was a child in the 1960s, came of age in the ’70s, and then an adult into the ’80s; and during the ’60s and ’70s, it was pretty bleak. Things did not look good. You had the failure of Vietnam. You had had the assassinations of the ’60s. You had the massive anti-war protests that were going on. You had the stagflation of the 1970s. You had Russia on the rise seemingly everywhere in the world, and it felt like America was in retreat. When the Iranian hostage rescue crisis happened in April of 1980, I was a junior in college, and I remember walking to a class and a friend of mine named Jim was sitting on the floor outside of the classroom weeping because we’d just heard about the failed rescue in Iran of the hostages there.

He looked at me and said, “Will America ever be great again?” That fall, Reagan was elected and we had one of the greatest runs for 20 years this country has ever seen. I think we’re really living in an era of a failure of leadership. We have a failure of leadership on the right for the reasons you discussed about policy, but also we have a failure of leadership in many of our institutions, both public and private, and the way business leaders are responding to wokeism, to ESG, to DEI, to critical race theory, to transgender radicalism with children. We have people at the elite level now discussing and normalizing the idea that children should go through gender transitioning therapy. I think we’d all agree, whatever adults want to do, they should be able to do that. But children? These are ridiculous things, and there’s leaders out there not saying that these are ridiculous things, and people are being intimidated because the left has a megaphone and they have the giant megaphone.

While the right has built up, and the pro-freedom side has built up, a lot more capacity to compete for the commanding heights of the American cultural news narrative and overall cultural narrative, they still tend to dominate, and we must invest in the ability to compete for the commanding heights of the American cultural narrative. If we do that well, I think we’ll be stunned by how quickly things change and we get back to where we should be in terms of a pro-freedom, uniquely American pluralistic society that is tolerant and welcoming of all.

Clay Routledge: Building on that observation about the failure of leadership and the need to compete for the ability to promote that culture. I was in academia for two decades nearly.

John Tillman: You look like an academic, I like it. You got the look of an academic. I’m a marketer, I always respect the guy that looks like he’s read a lot of books.

Clay Routledge: I’m going to take that as a compliment.

John Tillman: It was meant as one.

Clay Routledge: One thing I noticed, and one of the reasons I left academia actually, is that this message is not there. There’s so much pessimism and negativity and you have some of the brightest people, the most educated people, the people in fields like the field I’m in, psychology, who really have done great work at putting the human brain under the microscope and realizing the human cognitive capacities for creativity, innovation, resilience, inspiration, all the things that make our species unique and able to not just dominate the planet, but to really push back against nature, right? Our ancestors, if there was an asteroid heading towards the earth, wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it. Thanks to science, engineering, and technology, we have a fighting chance. At some level we understand intellectually the power of human self-determination, but at the same time we have this intellectual culture of pessimism, the language of oppression, everything is systemic. Everyone’s this kind of victimhood culture, as Ben was talking about.

You’re seeing this kind of emerge on the intellectual right to this idea that no one can really make it in this country anymore and we need more government. How do you think beyond political leadership, how do we inspire the next generation, the young people, first of all, to be educated about the power of markets, but just more broadly to understand and feel inspired by freedom to build a better world for themselves and for future generations?

John Tillman: There’s so much in that question. There’s a lot to unpack there. Let me try to take a couple different parts of it, and if I don’t get them all, feel free to remind me of something I may have neglected because that is a rich, rich, rich question. First of all, the underlying premise, the question itself, actually illustrates the point about the failure of elites because the American people actually don’t agree with the idea that people can’t make it anymore. We’ve done focus groups and surveys with thousands upon thousands upon thousands of Americans on a whole variety of topics, particularly about the American Dream, American opportunity and group identity politics, which you’re alluding to. What we have found in all of that research work is that African Americans very much believe in the American Dream, very much believe America is a noble and good place. Sure, there are problems and they feel that their race needs to be seen, but they don’t want their identity completely one dimensionally defined by their African American status that somebody else has assigned them.

This is even more true among Hispanics. Of course, Hispanics themselves are a very diverse group of people, but whether they’re Mexican immigrants, Puerto Rican immigrants, South and Central American immigrants; in general, they believe deeply in the opportunity society. They believe deeply in the American Dream. They don’t buy the narrative that you laid out that the elites are putting forward, that this is no longer a place of opportunity and your version of the American Dream coming true. They just reject that wholeheartedly, both in the focus groups and in the surveys we’ve done. We have overwhelming evidence between Blacks, Hispanics, single women, young couples with families, and Democrats-Republican-Independents, a broad agreement on America as an opportunity society where American Dreams still come true. People definitely want to be seen for their unique character, but they don’t want to be defined by it.

They find it dehumanizing to have their whole self defined by a characteristic assigned by some liberal on the North Shore of Chicago or in the East Hamptons of New York. They reject that. My point is, and this is one of the reasons I’m optimistic, the American people largely still believe in all that has made America exceptional and great. It is the elite class in particular that no longer believes it, both unfortunately on the left and the right to some degree. I think the premise is wrong in terms of what the elites believe. It’s just not true. The second thing I think that’s important here is that group identity politics is a cancer in America, and it must be destroyed. We must go back to the concept that this is a pluralistic, tolerant society. Where all people, no matter who they are, no matter where they come from, rich or poor, Black or white or brown, tall or short, fat or skinny, gay or straight, off the most recent illegal immigration methodology here, whether that’s an airplane or a ship or whatever it might be, or a descendent of the Mayflower. All are welcome here.

I actually think we should establish a national goal of having a billion people. We should have secure borders and choose who we let in and have common sense about it and let in the diversity of people from every single continent in this country. We should even let in penguins from the Antarctic for God’s sake, since there’s no people there. This has been an amazing country, and it is still an opportunity country, and it’s the elites who have lost faith in what made this country what it is. When the left says things, when Elizabeth Warren or Barack Obama say things like, “You didn’t build it. It took the country to build that.” They are really trying to destroy the core idea of our founding, which is individual sovereignty. The essence of America is that the individual sovereign over their government and the essence of how we’ve built this country is that individuals voluntarily through persuasion and mutual interests come together to build everything.

Look around the backgrounds in both of your screenshots, background of my screenshot, and other than what’s on the screen right now, which is our physical selves, every single thing that we can see with our eye—the picture frame, the picture itself, the lamp, the shirt you’re wearing, the carpeting, the chair I’m sitting on—every single one, every little component of it, was created because some entrepreneur had an idea to start and create a business to serve other people well. And as part of that process, he hired people to make things that people needed. The free enterprise system and capitalism is the greatest service enterprise ever created in the human sphere, and it improves people’s lives, which is why it’s been so successful in lifting so many out of poverty.

The other side of the coin is talking about people wanting more government. Think about everywhere in our society where government is the dominant player. Healthcare, they spend about 70 cents out of every dollar goes straight through the government in some form or fashion. Public education, every dollar flows through the government in public education. University education, it all goes through the government. Look at what’s happening in EV (electric vehicles) and the development of that where the government’s becoming a bigger and bigger player through subsidies, although that’s very early on. In every case where the government is the dominant economic player, services decline, prices rise, and dissatisfaction also rises.

Contrast that where you have a more market-based economy. Look at what happened with Uber and Lyft. Look at what happened with Airbnb and how they launched long before the government could get their regulatory hand on them, and it was explosive and it changed people’s lives for the better overnight. The taxi cartels were bypassed overnight because of entrepreneurship and those who choose Uber as an example of that. But eventually the government started wielding its hand again, regulating it, taxing it, and slowing it down. All those businesses, they’re still fine, but they’re not what they once were in terms of growth or in terms of their ability to serve. The problem is the government, it’s always been the problem, and the challenge for us is how do we rein it in and control it in a way that we’ve not been able to do over the last 100 years?

Ben Wilterdink: Yeah, listening to that, I think, why can’t we hear more of our elected leaders take that attack? That does seem to be similar in our research. We’ve done surveys on the American Dream for the past three or four years, and every single time we have 80 percent plus of people saying they’ve either achieved the American Dream or they’re on their way to achieving it. It’s very much an alive concept for the vast, vast majority of people. Yet, that is not what we see reflected in our media. It’s not what we see reflected in some of our most elite institutions. There does seem to be a fundamental disconnect there. How much do you think that’s a result of some of the things you were talking about earlier, this other era. It is nice to have that perspective. It wasn’t that long ago that we had stagflation, that you had a rising existential threat with the Soviet Union. I didn’t grow up in that environment, but a lot of people did. It’s interesting to see how things have changed since we moved away from that. It wasn’t like everything was peachy 50 years ago. I think sometimes people get a little myopic and shortsighted in what things are today versus what they were in the past.

John Tillman: Yeah, there’s a lot of nostalgia, and I think Clay alluded to this earlier about the idea of people becoming more dependent on the government. The government needs to do more for people, and this is not an accident. The left has learned that dependency, learned helplessness creates voting blocks. Group identity politics originally started because there were some academics and theoreticians who really wanted to pursue that. What really turned it on and got it going was when the political class recognized that there was an electoral strategy behind group identity politics. The dirty little secret that nobody ever talks about is that the Democrats are completely dependent on Black and brown voters, single women. Now LBGTQ is a growing category. Asians are a growing category. These are still very small categories. If you’ve actually done the analysis after the 2012 election, I hired a researcher to attack what I called the blue wall, bring the blue wall down.

You might remember after 2012, everybody talked about how the Democrats had established this impenetrable blue wall, 242 electoral votes, all the states that had voted Democrat for president since 1988 or ‘84, and the Republicans to get to 270 electoral votes essentially had to run the table on all the competitive states to win. I just never believed that was true. I also believe that electoral coalition that gave them the blue wall had weaknesses. Everybody else was looking at the competitive states. I want to look at the blue wall and find out what the underlying weakness of the blue wall was. It turns out the underlying weakness of the blue wall is the Democrat’s reliance on group identity politics. It’s no accident that they want to give away bailouts on student loans because they need young voters in their corner. Barack Obama got 60 percent of millennials in the 2012 election, and they were a growing part of the electorate.

He got 93 percent of the Black vote in 2012. He got 67 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012, and he got about 65 or 60 percent of single women. I can’t remember if I mentioned that one. The other side of the coin though, that nobody… And of course, he needed by the way, all of those numbers in order to win Pennsylvania, Michigan, obviously all the big states that you’re familiar with, but especially Pennsylvania and Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, all those states that are swing states or we think of swing states become red states, if the Republican nominees start eroding the Democrat dominance of those four big groups: Blacks, Hispanics, single women and millennials being the four biggest groups. Asians are about 3 percent and LGBTQ is not easy to measure yet at this point in terms of the data on exit polling from elections.

My point with this is that the political class recognizes that by a politics of division, resentment, bitterness, grievance politics. If you are Black, every single thing that’s going on in your life that you’re not happy about, it’s because you’re Black. It’s because of white supremacy. It’s because of cultural racism that is systemic and has been here since 1690. 2012 was the first time in American history that African American voters turned out at a higher rate than white voters, 66 to 64 percent. That had never happened before. Same thing with Hispanics. They don’t want to solve the border crisis. They don’t want to solve the immigration price crisis. They want the crisis because it creates resentment. Same thing you can think of for all the policies for millennials. You can think of all the policies of abortion, in particular, for single women and suburban women who are afraid that they might have a late in life unwanted pregnancy. These are all designed to create resentment and grievance, motivate people to vote and vote Democratic. That is very, very appealing, and then it’s morphed into this society of dependency and helplessness.

What they’re doing, first of all, it’s evil, what they’re doing. It is an attack on humanity. It is an attack on human dignity in every sense of it. But what they’re really doing is recognizing that there are two aspects to the human condition. The one is that when things go awry, it’s a natural thing to feel victimized. I didn’t get into the college I wanted or that your child didn’t get into the college you wanted. You didn’t get the promotion. You didn’t get the raise. That girl wouldn’t go out with you. That guy wouldn’t go out with you. Whatever calamity is going on in your life, it’s because you’re a victim in some form or fashion and only the government can properly come in to put its foot on the scale and properly allocate opportunity and resources to make it just right for you.

That is a very seductive argument when you’re struggling. That is a very seductive argument when you’ve experienced disappointment in your life, because 100 percent of us experienced disappointment in our lives. The other side of that coin though is what the founders understood and what this country was founded on. The founders understood that no matter who you were, how you got here, on the Mayflower or a later ship? That if you came to America, this was a place filled with opportunity if you’re willing to work, if you’re willing to be self-accountable, if you’re willing to not be a victim and take control of your life. Work with other people to create value together and build something for yourself. The other side of that coin is the appeal to hope and aspiration and the natural human desire and human beings to build. We as a species are naturally builders.

Again, look at everything around us. We’ve been building things since the beginning of time. The cave didn’t start out as a cave. I’m sure they carved it out and made it better in that first cave life, in the first adobe house that was built or the thatched roof that was built. We’ve been builders from the beginning of time, and the other side has decided to attack that. Our side has to get better at telling people that you’re more secure, you’re more safe, and you’ll live a more fulfilling life on the hope and aspiration side of the equation and on the natural human dimension than on the learned helplessness, dependency and grievance side.

Ben Wilterdink: Yeah, I love that optimistic message. My biggest question for you would be to what extent do you think that the political right is really offering a contrast? Because when I look at the way that President Trump ran his election in 2016 and 2020, how we’re seeing this rising movement among the political leaders, it does seem to be more identity based, more grievance based. It’s very much… Everyone’s out to get you. These people have abandoned you in certain ways like, “The reason that your rural area is suffering is because the leaders don’t care about you.” It seems to me like they are less providing a contrast to that message and more just trying to take advantage of it in a different way. Do you see political leaders or do you see other elected officials that are embracing more of the hopeful, builder message, or are we going to be stuck in this more grievance push-pull on the political side for a while? How do you see that shaping up?

John Tillman: First of all, I agree with your assessment. And if you think about the interesting aspect of the Trump 2016 race, he, on the one hand, had the grievance side: they’re destroying the country, they’re terrible, and all the attacks that he did. But then, on the other hand, he did come back with, “We’re going to make America great again.” Which was hopeful and positive. I would say that his balance between the two was off. He had too much grievance and negativity and not enough hopefulness, but the country was really frustrated and that’s why he won so narrowly. I think the classic mistake that Trump made in 2020 is he couldn’t get over his grievance. He didn’t know how to sell a positive aspirational vision.

His fatal flaws as president. He did many really good things for those… In any audience, there are some people who still love Trump. There are some people who never liked him and there’s people like me who voted for him twice and tolerated the bad behavior. I was happy with some of the policy outcomes, but I would never vote for him again for a host of reasons. The fatal mistake he made was he didn’t understand that what got him elected in 2016 wasn’t the same thing that was going to get him reelected. He did too much grievance and not enough hope and aspiration, even though he had a fairly successful one term. Obviously, going back to Reagan, as I mentioned earlier, he was very much in keeping with my whole theme here.

I think what is going to be interesting is I’m not sure if I’m saying his name right. I’ve met him, I’ve seen him speak many times, Vivek Ramaswamy, who just announced his candidacy for president at 37 years old. He is going to have a narrative very much like what we’ve been talking about here. I think it’s going to be very positive, very hopeful, and I actually think he’s going to get a surprising amount of traction in the Republican primary because I think he’s going to be the best at it, as a child of immigrants from India. He’s got such a great story and he tells it well, and he has really developed a good pitch, if you will. A stump speech was the term I was looking for. I also think Tim Scott is going to have a very uplifting, positive message that is going to be very impressive. Nikki Haley, again, I think another one who has a positive uplifting message. I haven’t seen enough of Pompeo yet or Pence. I think they both will actually have a positive uplifting message, though I think Pompeo’s in particular will be more tempered by the threat of the Chinese, which he’s very focused on as we all should because the Chinese are very much a threat.

I actually think what we’re going to see in the 2024 cycle is a fight between these two ideas of which way to go at it. I think the balance is, the way I always try to put this is, when you’re trying to get the country to embrace a new paradigm or a slightly different paradigm than what the status quo is, you have to destroy loyalty to the status quo paradigm first, which is the attack part. But the country’s made it pretty clear they’re unhappy with the status quo from Biden’s approval ratings to right track/wrong track members, all kinds of things. People generally are not happy. You don’t have to spend a lot of time on it. You just have to refresh the memory and then you have to sell your aspirational vision.

I have a feeling that people on the right are going to learn that. The key question though will be aspirational vision to what end and how to get there versus what the Democrats are going to sell, which is more government to solve your problems for you. That’s our aspiration for you. They really are selling that people should join the dependency class. What we need to understand is that once you join the dependency class, it creates a dependency ceiling on your upside potential, and you crush the human spirit. That is part of what we have to do on the attacking side of their vision.

Clay Routledge: Yeah. One thing I was going to add when you were talking about your polling and your survey work, I know Ben already mentioned our work about the American Dream, but we’ve also done some work on patriotism that I also think paints an encouraging picture. We found that across all different groups, regardless of how you cut the data, whether you’re looking at age or race and also political affiliation, most Americans are proud to be American, which again is at odds with this kind of elite message. You can look at a lot of headlines in certain newspapers and magazines. They’ll act like, “People are ashamed to be Americans.” Or, “We should be ashamed to be Americans.” Or, “America’s not that great.”

Just curious, in your experience in this space, we’re talking about these divides, but why is it the case that if elites have turned, if they’ve lost faith in the country, what explains that? Given that in a lot of cases they’re the people that have benefited the most from the American Dream, right? I’m not saying you can get into their heads, but what makes somebody who’s very successful, cynical and pessimistic about their own country?

John Tillman: Charles Murray came out with a book some years ago called Coming Apart. Charles has also dabbled with guaranteed basic income. I’m not sure exactly what his position is on it, but he’s certainly talked about it, and I could not disagree more about that idea as I said earlier. His book, Coming Apart, was really, really good. I think it addresses in part why what you’re saying has happened. It used to be that elites in society had regular interactions on a daily basis and deeply in their lives with everybody else. They weren’t in isolation. One of the underlying premises of the book Coming Apart is how over the last 40 years there’s been a sorting out process as highly intelligent… The university system has become extremely good at identifying every intelligent person, high school junior and senior in this entire country.

It used to be that in the 1960s, ’50s, ’40s and ’30s, if you were a very smart kid in rural America, urban America, and elsewhere, the great schools never heard about you, never knew about you. There was no way to find them. These people, very intelligent, would grow up all over the country and have success if they’re intelligent. Intelligence doesn’t guarantee success. You have to have many other things besides, and I know some very intelligent people who have failed lives by conventional standards. I know some people that in terms of intelligence tests would flunk every one of them. A good friend of mine, he could take showers more, okay. He doesn’t always shower every day, and he’s one of the wealthiest guys I know. He’s just so smart in the way that is non-academic, but nevertheless, raw cognitive intelligence is definitely a driver of success.

Combined with that your motor runs. Ambition, hunger, desire, and then luck and opportunity, right? That’s what determines it. These people used to be spread out all over. What’s happened over these last several decades, as Murray writes about, and I have lived it and seen it, is the super smart people all end up going to the same top 30 or 40 schools, and they marry the same people, and there’s a sorting out process in our society. They all go to the best schools. They all go get their MBAs. They all go work for all the top 50 to 100 to 200 firms. Start firms. They live in the same suburbs. Their kids go to the same schools. They go to the same churches, and they live in a bubble.

I live in a lovely suburb of Chicago. It is a bubble, and I have particular neighbors of mine who are both very liberal. Their belief system is completely based on false information. They have no idea what’s actually going on. They think they do, and they have an abstract idea of what’s going on, but they really don’t understand what’s happening. I’ve had very liberal friends of mine who are in the elites who have said to me, “Well, John, I can’t imagine why you would think that a poor African American single mother struggling to get by in the city of Chicago is going to be able to make a good judgment about what school her child should go to.” I’m like, “How are you kidding me? Do you realize how patronizing and racist that is?” Then they get really offended when you say that to them.

I think the problem is that our elites are living in a bubble. They read only the things they read that reinforce it, and the truth is, propaganda works. One of those friends I’m referring to reads nothing but The New York Times and theWashington Post, and if you read nothing but The New York Times and the Washington Post every day, you’re going to have a particular worldview that is not based in truth or facts. I think that’s a big reason why.

The other thing, I think, that’s going on… Martin Gurri had a great book that he self-published in 2014. He updated in 2018 with an extra, a new chapter that actually is the chapter you should read first if you get this book. It’s a big book. It’s called The Revolt of the Public. Have you guys heard of this book?

Ben Wilterdink: Yes.

John Tillman: It’s really worth skimming. You don’t have to read the whole thing, certainly buy it because Martin can always use the money. I don’t know Martin well, but I’ve met him a few times and spent some time with him along with many others. Very fascinating guy. Cuban immigrant. Worked for the CIA for many, many years as an analyst, in particular about communications and how the digital revolution affected things. He was a big student of the Arab Spring and what fermented that.

He and his colleagues started putting together and assembling a bunch of notes that eventually became his first book, Revolt of the Public. The premise of the book is that part of the reason the elites are in such a weird state today is because the public has more information than ever in the history of the world to evaluate and judge elite competence. It used to be, if you think about it, that prior to 2001 and the advent of the internet and in the digital age, all the information we got by which we could evaluate the people running institutions who are elites was really provided by an elite class. Our information flow was controlled by the elite class. As the masses or the public, you really didn’t have all the information to hold them accountable.

Today it’s pretty easy to really find out whether elites are doing a good job or not. That has created a tremendous disruption and dissatisfaction among the public. I think it largely explains the rise of Trump. Let me preface that, the rise of the Tea Party, the rise of Occupy Wall Street, and the rise of Trump was derivative of those. This movement was here, the parade was formed with dissatisfaction on both sides of the aisle, and Trump saw the parade and said, “I’m going to get in front of it and lead the parade.” The other person that saw the parade and wanted to get in front of it was Bernie Sanders, which explains why so many Bernie Sanders voters in 2016 in the primary voted for Trump in the general because they were dissatisfied with elite governance on both sides of the aisle.

I think they’re living in a bubble and I think part of what we… This is not going to be an overnight solution, Clay. This is going to take some time for us. I was talking to another very smart intellectual friend of mine about this subject a few years ago during the Kavanaugh hearings, and really, I think, what we are going to have is a battle of two competing elites. There’s going to be the elites that are loyal to the past and their position, and there’s going to be the disrupting elites that emerge who want to supplant them and create the society that’s still based on the founding principles.

Ben Wilterdink: Yeah, I think we can’t really overlook how digital media has just changed so much, like access to information. Obviously, we have fewer gatekeepers, or the gatekeepers that we do still have are less efficacious because you can always find an alternative. It’s very easy to get bubbled in your own media. You have a friend who reads the Washington Post and The New York Times exclusively… I’ve got some friends who read Breitbart or Town Hall exclusively. They’re just really not too much cross-pollination there, which is probably not ideal, I guess, you should say. My next question for you is as individuals, right? We’re working on this, Clay and I, and I think you in some respects are still in more of a think tank space. We’re working on different policy ideas, things like that. We’re seeing this happen. We’re seeing these trends unfold. What should we be doing to try to make sure that we are being a part of building that hopeful message? How can we embody the solution ourselves?

John Tillman: Well, this is a great question, and I think there’s really two parts to it and everybody has to figure out where they fit either in both parts of this or one or the other parts. We are in a propaganda war, I alluded to this earlier. We were in a battle for the commanding heights of the American cultural narrative. There used to be a consensus about what American culture meant. When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, there was a consensus about America that we were pro-freedom. There was consensus on the Cold War, even though it had wound down by then. There was a consensus that free enterprise was a virtuous system, that our founding documents were virtuous. That America, though deeply flawed and always self-correcting and made a lot of mistakes, was virtuous in its intent to self-correct and paid huge prices to self-correct.

We had consensus about all of those things. We don’t have consensus on that anymore, particularly on the radical… As I alluded to, we have consensus among the American people on those things and we have consensus among some in the political and media and elite class, and I break politics down into, there’s the political class, there’s the media, there’s the public, and there are elites. What we have to understand is that all of this is taking place in a propaganda war, and propaganda works. If you don’t believe propaganda works, ask one of your liberal friends whether or not President Trump said that there were good people in the neo-Nazis at Charlottesville during the Charlottesville crisis. Of course, and I’m stirring the pot, I say this as somebody who would never vote for Trump again. No, he didn’t say that.

But the conventional wisdom is that he said that, and even when I have shown people the transcript and the actual video where he’s actually referring to people on both sides of the monument argument and what to do about monuments. He said there’s good people on both sides. Even when shown that actual information, I’ve had my liberal friends say, “I just don’t believe that. I know he said the other thing.” They have cognitive dissonance, they can’t understand it. We are in a propaganda war. Policy is important because policy is part of the content side of the propaganda war, and we have to always think, in my humble opinion, everybody that cares about policy should think relentlessly and recruit talent relentlessly into their organization or find people who know how to do it. To help them with this, they need to translate policy into consumer-facing nuggets and messages that people can absorb and understand.

Jonathan Haidt wrote a great book, I’m sure you’ve heard of it, called The Righteous Mind, that talks about how people learn and change their minds and come to their views. We use a method at our marketing agency, Iron Light, called SCARF. That’s an acronym that stands for status, relatedness, fairness, autonomy, and I forget the last one. But the point is that each of us has these elements within our emotional makeup, and the message has to appeal to one of those things. You’re either appealing to them on fairness, their status, their security. You’re relating to them their threats to their autonomy as an individual or their ability to expand their autonomy as an individual. All of our messaging needs to go through a process where we connect people. Another way I like to say it, particularly to people in the policy arena, is we need to tell stories about policy at the point it intersects somebody’s life.

The story I always tell is we tend to talk about high gas prices. I just filled up a tank. It was $4.20 in Florida per gallon, still very high gas prices. We tend to want to talk about, we’ve got to unleash fracking. We’ve got to reopen all the federal land. We’ve got to have more drilling, and this whole restriction that the Biden administration has done on exploration is terrible. We’ve got to increase supply, which will lower the cost and lower the cost of energy for people. “Oh, that’s a wonderful story.” Nobody cares. The story we should be telling is a true story where I was pulling up to a gas pump in Springfield, Illinois, and I got out of my car and another car pulls up next to me, and it’s a woman, an adult woman in her ’50s with her adult son who’s probably 21 or 22, and they get out of the car, he’s going into prepay cash, and she is going to pump, and he stops a couple steps from the car and says, “Mom, how much?”

She stood there for a second. I’m two feet from her, and I could see her calculating and thinking, and she looks at him. She goes, “Let’s do 20.” They went into $20 that day, and anybody watching this, I would advise you the next time you fill up, most of you are going to put your credit card in and fill up to the max. You’re not going to prepay. Some of you will prepay, but look around when you fill up and you put your credit card in and then go walk around all the pumps at the gas station and look at how many times you will see the last fill up at that last purchase at that pump was $10, $15, $7, $12. These are people that are suffering because of the Biden administration’s attack on fossil fuels, and they’re ruining people’s lives.

We need to tell that story of that mom with her son and what they’ve cut out of their life, might be a single mom with a kid who needs tutoring. That’s how we need to talk about the messaging side. From the distribution side, we all need to think about distribution and how we build an audience. Are we just throwing it out there into the ether, or do we actually have a strategic vision for who the audience is that we want and how we’re specifically going after them? I think my criticism of the policy arena is that there’s not enough thought on both the content side and the distribution side to the target audience you want. I always try to say that I’ve been asked many times, “Where does a think tank’s power come from?” My answer to that question is a think tank’s power comes from its ability to take a policy idea, make it compelling to the specific audience you’re trying to reach and compel an action, that’s power. We need to think like that and build assets that allow us to do that.

Ben Wilterdink: We’re picking up on that strategy that you laid out, which I think is very important for all of us working in this area. Is that what you see yourself doing with the American Culture Project? Can you talk a little bit about that as an organization, and why you started that, and what it is? Maybe just give us a little bit of insight on how you’re applying some of what you just talked about into that framework.

John Tillman: There’s multiple things going on at the American Culture Project, which is our [501](c4), and American Culture Foundation, which is the [501](c)3. Generally speaking, what we’re trying to do is, number one, put content that is compelling sometimes in a non-political way in front of audiences, often using Facebook, other social media tools to get people to opt into our own audience. In all of my organizations that I’m involved with, we are trying to acquire audience in a targeted way. We will use all kinds of tools, but particularly Facebook ads is still by far the best and the least expensive one to get people to voluntarily give us their first name, last name, zip code, and email address. In the same way that Netflix or Amazon Prime or any other streamers are trying to get you to sign up, you give me your first name, last name, zip code, you give them the credit card, and you agree to consume their content.

We’re doing exactly the same thing except we have to get people to sign up, voluntarily join, and then agree to take our stream of content. We might deliver that once they’re in our owned audience. We might then deliver that content to them through email. We might deliver it to them through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or some other means. We’re in Illinois where this is the most mature, we have about 2.5 million people in our owned audience. Now while we’re around the rest of the country primarily through American Culture and some work with Iron Light, we have another 3 million people. My goal one day is to have every household in America in our owned audience database so that we can direct market to them and bypass the mainstream media’s dominance of the means of distribution. That’s part of what we’re doing at American Culture Project.

The other thing we’re doing right now is we’re very focused on educating the public, and I’ll say this in a polite way. If we were to borrow, I would say this a little more crudely. We’re trying to educate the American public on the truth about teachers unions and how they’re destroying children’s lives. There are many teachers out there that are doing amazing work, and there are many organizations out there right now, policy organizations, they’re doing incredible work on educational reform and school choice. We cheer them on. [But] that’s not what we’re doing. We want to make it easier for them to do that by decoupling teachers unions, who are the largest hard dollar political giver in the country from particularly in the beginning Republicans and eventually swing district Democrats. We want to make teachers union dollars toxic for a conservative libertarian elected official to take those dollars by educating the public.

We’ve launched a campaign in Illinois in Chicago just a couple of weeks ago. We made a documentary film about Local 1, which is the first teachers union in the entire history of this nation. Local 1 is the Chicago Teachers Union, otherwise known as CTU. They’re publicly, avowedly communist, and they say so out loud, and in our film we show them saying that out loud. They want to bargain and be activists on issues beyond collective bargaining, beyond education, beyond the children in the schools. They want to protect women’s reproductive rights. They want fair housing, as they would call it all. They have a whole array of the social justice agenda beyond education. We launched this just, I guess, about 10 days ago now, and it’s become the biggest story in the city of Chicago. We have blown up the whole world with the Chicago Teachers Union right now, and it’s been very, very fun because we’re simply telling the truth about who they are and what they’re doing.

We already have 120,000 people in the city of Chicago that have watched the entire film, which is a huge number. We expect that eventually to go into the millions. Part of what American Culture Project is doing nationally in targeted states is to educate the public on the power of the teachers union. We’re starting in Chicago and then taking that national. Then the third thing we’re going to work on is multi-state compacts. We’re going to look and work with Republican trifecta states that are likely to pass the kind of policies we believe in, which are pro-liberty policies, and try to get state compacts that knit three or four or five Republican states controlled right now together with pro-liberty regulations and/or legislation and lock those in and create a block, if you will.

One of the things that goes on in the country right now is California has outsized influence because it’s the biggest market. When they put in a regulation or when they put in some other progressive climate change policy, a lot of manufacturers will change their whole national program to adhere to California. California is essentially dictating other 49 states. We want to do that in reverse with red states in a multi-state compact program. Those are things we’re working on.

Ben Wilterdink: All right. Yeah, I think especially on the teacher’s union front and educational freedom, that is probably one of the biggest bright spots happening right now. I think COVID really upended a lot of things and parents got a chance to see firsthand what was going on and the quality of what was going on. I think a lot of people, once they had that experience, they just thought, “I don’t need to go back.” Even Randi Weingarten head of, I don’t know, the NEA or one of the other big teachers unions, she didn’t exactly do herself any favors either. Like you said, it’s not like you have to manipulate anything. These people, if parents knew what these people were saying and they were presented with that information, I don’t think a lot of them would be very happy with it. We are seeing different states adopt education savings accounts basically, as our friend Corey DeAngelis likes to say, “Having the money follow the students and not the system. Fund students, not systems.” That seems to be very effective. That seems to be an area where we are seeing a lot of really positive progress on that front.

John Tillman: It’s exciting, and it shows that when there’s transparency and accountability of elites running our educational systems—and the unions are elites, Randi Weingarten is an elite—when you have transparency on that, and they can be held accountable, people will rally to the cause and begin to marshal political power against that bad leadership. I think that’s the tip of the spear in terms of what we need to do as a country. As a quick aside, I don’t know if you’ve read Mike Pompeo’s new book, he just came out. Well, it’s a very long book, 400 some pages. On page 412, he says that the largest threat to the United States is the Chinese Communist Party, the largest external threat. The largest internal threat is Randi Weingarten and the teachers unions. I couldn’t agree with him more.

Ben Wilterdink: Yeah. Well, I think as we come to a close, Clay, I want to give you a chance to ask any further questions if you have any. I’d be really curious to see two sides of the same coin here, John. What gives you the most hope? You mentioned earlier that you are optimistic about how things are going or how things could go. What do you think is the biggest strength that we have going for us right now in this relatively tumultuous time? What do you think is the biggest challenge that we’re really going to need to tackle to overcome?

John Tillman: I always said that, this is going to be ironic, when Biden won in 2020 and the Democrats took over Congress, everybody was so filled with despair. I said, “No, this is the greatest thing that could ever happen because they’re going to implement their agenda aggressively, and we think they’re wrong. If we’re right that they’re wrong, the American people are going to see that too and reject it.” I think we’ve seen that happen. Then after 2022, everybody said, “Yeah, but we didn’t get the big red wave.” I also say that, “Actually, I think one day we’ll look back on the 2022 election and say it was the greatest outcome we could have ever hoped for the following reason.”

The Republicans barely gained control of the House. We have ability, when I say, I mean the people who believe in pro-freedom, liberty, free market policies—theoretically the Republicans, although they’re terrible. I got involved in all this because Republicans are so bad, they just irritate the… Democrats, at least believe what they say; Republicans are filled with the chameleon. Some of them are fake Republicans, and some of them are real Republicans, and that’s part of the problem. That’s a subject for another day. Anyway, theoretically the Republican Party should embrace the policies I believe in, which is a pro-liberty agenda, pro-free markets, human freedom, flourishing, and all the rest of it in a pluralistic and tolerant society. You have that blocking ability now, the House where the Biden administration can only do the executive unilateral type things now, but it really muted Trump’s momentum. I think that’s important to allow other voices to emerge. If there had been a huge red wave, Trump would be throttling all the way to the nomination, and the whole dialogue would be very different.

Right now, if the Republicans had gained 40 or 50 seats and taken the Senate, Trump would be triumphant, and we’d be in a very different debate. Now, because that election was so muted, and there’s reasons why it was muted. One of them, I think, Clay and you, both referred to is the Republicans didn’t sell what they were for. All they did was criticize what the Democrats were doing to the country and how they were harming people. They didn’t say, “But if we’re in charge, here’s what we’re going to do and how life will be better.” They didn’t have that positive vision that we talked about earlier. One day we’ll look back at 2022 as the greatest outcome because it’s allowed other voices to flourish, and we’re starting to see that. Vivek, as I mentioned earlier, I think is going to be a great voice in this campaign. I think Tim Scott’s going to be a great voice in this campaign about positive hope, what we stand for, about how we want to unleash human potential.

We want to remove the ceiling. We want to have an unlimited blue sky opportunity for every American by getting the government out of their way and encouraging people to go take risks, and if you fall down, we’re going to be there to help you get back up. But we’re not going to put you into a dependency class where you’re perpetually a victim, which is a life of despair and decline. We are going to have people fighting to have the most positive vision of hope, aspiration in building America, and finding what our 21st century destiny’s going to be. That’s why I’m optimistic.

Clay Routledge: Just adding to that question, is there a specific issue or set of issues that you think they’re the most likely that we’d be able to get some bipartisan support? I don’t even necessarily mean politically. I mean for instance, in more I guess, think tanky space. I think we’re starting to see some momentum around, some people call it an abundance agenda or the idea on the center-left center-right, there’s some agreement that maybe there is too much regulation. Maybe there’s too much occupational licensing going on. Maybe there’s too many restrictions on building. Do you see any particular issues where you think that despite the extreme polarization on the far left and the far right that maybe people in the middle might come around that would be a more optimistic pro-growth agenda?

John Tillman: Yeah, I think there’s going to be… Again, this is with what I’ll call common sense Democrats, soft Democrats ideologically. The radical left will never change, but the Democrats that are gettable. Republicans that are open-minded and, of course, independents. We’re going to see a lot more openness on the fact that all these growth restrictions in places like California and Portland and other Democrat controlled areas have really hurt the poor in terms of housing. I think there’s going to be work on that, and I think there’s going to be common ground on that.

I think school choice and educational freedom is going to be, parental rights in education is going to continue to be a bipartisan issue. It’s a bipartisan issue now. It turns out when you’re teaching critical race theory and teaching little Johnny who’s six years old, or little Jane who’s seven years old and white, that you’re a racist. It turns out Democrat liberal parents don’t like that either. I think that’s going to continue to be part of the dialogue.

Another area that I am focused on that I’ve not heard much about because it’s a novel idea that I’ve really been exploring, nobody else is talking about, but I’ll put it out there for the first time publicly. What is the other side of the coin of guaranteed basic income? The other side of that coin is a guaranteed right to earn and save. When you think about why the middle class and working class struggles and why it’s harder to rise, it’s because every time you do a little better in life… Everybody starts out poor, right? When you’re born, you have nothing. You’re completely dependent on your family that takes care of you. We’re all born with a net worth of zero. Now we get familial type things and community type things that give us some intangible value, but then we get out into our life at 18 or 22, and most of the time you have very little in the way of income or assets. And you start growing, and you start building, and, geez, you do really well and you get a promotion.

My daughter is 24 years old. When she graduated, she got a very nice job at a fairly nice salary and the break point where you go to start paying 22%, the marginal rate goes from whatever it was, I think it’s 10% up to 22%, that break point’s right around $40,000. She was making substantially more than that. She said, “Do you mean they’re taking 22 cents out of every dollar I earn above $40,000?” I said, “Yes.” She goes, “And the state’s taking 5%?” I said, “Yes.” She goes, “What’s this FICA stuff?” I said, “Oh, that’s your Social Security…” She goes, “You’re telling me they’re taking about 39 or 40% of every dollar I earn over $40,000?” I said, “Yes.” She goes, “That sucks.” Then she looked at me and said, “You need to do better.” Then she just got a promotion to even more money and we went through it again, and we need to do a better job of explaining to people. Marginal taxation limits the ability of poor people to rise to the middle class and affluent. I think we should reverse that. When you’re 18 or your first job, you should pay no taxes, zero, so long as you put 15% of it in some sort of retirement vehicle.

One of the things the pandemic showed us is how little free cash people have. People have no savings because when you get to be in your ’30s and ’40s and now you’re making whatever, $40, $50, $60, $70, $80,000, you’re in family formation time. Your kids are being born. You’re going to school. You’re buying a house. You’re furnishing a house. You’ve got to have two cars. You’re at the peak consumption time of building a family, and they start taxing you at a higher marginal right at that peak time. It makes it very difficult to save. This is exactly the opposite of what it should be. We should be letting people save first, and then when they get to a threshold, we can say it’s $500,000. We could say it’s $200,000. It doesn’t take very long, by the way, to get there. You save 15% a year from when you’re 18 on, you get there pretty quickly, even at an entry level wage. That’s the kind of thing we should be talking about.

Ben Wilterdink: Interesting. All right. Is there anything else that we didn’t cover that you want to make sure that our audience might be aware of or anything else that you want to mention before we sign off?

John Tillman: I think the most important thing you said, “Well, what can people do?” I think the number one thing, everybody watching this, they’re engaged by being a viewer, but we all have to be engaged at every level. Find a way to be engaged at your local government. Get engaged in a political race. Get engaged in a policy debate. Read the news across the spectrum. Don’t just read conservative news. Don’t just read liberal news. For God’s sake, don’t ever read the USA Today, but consume a broad array of information and arm yourself with a good sense of it. I think the really important part of what we all have to do is understand that American greatness is not an entitlement. It is not a birthright. American greatness has to be earned by every single generation. Anybody that is alive today is part of the generation that will determine whether American greatness continues in the 21st century. What we should do, everybody needs to understand, is get in the fight. Don’t let the other side, don’t let the bullies win because you’re passive, inactive, and apathetic.

Ben Wilterdink: All right, and as usual, it starts with us. Absolutely. John, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today.

John Tillman: Great to be with you.

Clay Routledge: Yeah. Thank you, John, so much.

John Tillman is best known for building the Illinois Policy Institute (IPI), which he currently chairs, into one of the most influential state-based think tanks in the country while he was CEO from 2007 to 2021. While leading IPI, he co-founded and served as chairman of Liberty Justice Center, which won the precedent-setting Janus v. AFSCME case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018. John is currently CEO of the American Culture Project, an organization that attracts, educates, and mobilizes independent voters around the ideas of freedom and opportunity. John has also founded and chairs numerous other enterprises within the liberty space, such as the Franklin News Foundation and Iron Light, a full-service, for-profit digital marketing agency, which does work for more than 75 nonprofits across the conservative public policy space.

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