Framing the Issues with John Tillman CW 12 Transcript


John Tsarpalas: Framing the issues, winning the debate. Commonwealthy podcast #12. Hey, we got a dozen!

My guest today is John Tillman, CEO of the Illinois Policy Institute. But John’s here as an average, everyday citizen. Welcome, citizen John.   

John Tillman: Great to be here.

John Tsarpalas: I was thrilled that you agreed to have this interview with me because I know no one who is better at framing issues and winning the debate.

John Tillman: Well, there’s a lot of people who do it well, but thank you for that compliment. I started out my life, John, in the call center business. I started out as a salesman on the telephone.

You have to learn to be quick on your feet and you have to learn how to respond and kind of debate with people if you are going to be successful. Back when I was in college, I needed to make a living. So that’s where I got my training.

John Tsarpalas: Well, it has served you well. One of the things that I think you do is you always take the high road and the high ground, in essence turn it back on it back on the liberal, progressive world and how they are hurting people, not helping people.

John Tillman: Yeah, well I think the fundamental truth that I believe is that our ideas are better for everyone, of course. But also, our ideas are especially better for the poor and disadvantaged.

One of the main reasons I got involved in this movement in the first place was because I was so frustrated with people on the right (just to use that term broadly) who are incompetent at communicating the superiority of our ideas to help people.

In fact, our spokespeople, whether an elected official or advocate of some sort or another, were so often always on the defense, always on their heels, always somehow not knowing how to parry back and put the other side on defense. So I really started to think about that and focus on that and develop some techniques to accomplish that.

John Tsarpalas: So let’s jump into some of those techniques.

John Tillman: I think the first thing is you have to think about all policy not in terms of numbers and data. It’s important and there is a place for that. But I think you have to think of an individual person. What I always like to say is think about the policy at the point it intersects somebody’s life.

Let me just give you an example of that. So there’s a lot of discussion today about fracking. The fracking revolution has brought down energy costs, gasoline costs, and heating oil costs dramatically. What used to be $4 or $4.50 a gallon at the gas pump is now down to $2.25 to $2.50 to $2.65 depending on where you live in the country.

This is an amazing improvement in the human condition, especially for the poor. But our side wants to talk about fracking.

John Tsarpalas: Right.

John Tillman: We should be talking about the woman who is a single mom at the gas pump with a grocery list in her hand and she’s got two kids in the backseat. Maybe she is newly divorced and struggling. When President Obama has his way and his green extremist allies have their way, gas is up $4.50 a gallon.

So she’s got that grocery list. She starts to pump the gas. It used to stop as $35 or $40 and it rolls right on passed- $40, $45, $50, $55 $60, $65 before it finally, mercifully stops. Because it is costing her $65 instead of $35 or $40, she crosses items off her grocery list. She crosses the tutor off for her son who needs help with math.

This is why President Obama and the green extremists are wrong and this is why the fracking revolution has helped poor people because now she can put the tutor back on the list. She buy better quality food for her family. She can have more time to be home with her kids because she doesn’t have to work quite so much. That’s why we need fracking to help that single mom standing at that gas pump.

John Tsarpalas: So how does someone who is thinking about running for local office- school board, county board, township highway commission, whatever that may be- do they take these issues, try to sit down with them and think of how their policy and approach is going to help the individual, and then spell that out and try to find someone who exemplifies that situation?

John Tillman: That’s exactly what you do, John. I think one of the great mistakes we make is we think we can wing it. You cannot wing it, especially when you are new to this and especially in a local race where you think the consequences might not be very high.

From the very beginning when you start down this path to be an elected official and advance the cause of freedom, you have to try to anticipate every issue you think is going to come up.

And you won’t anticipate every one. But think about what they are. If you are a commissioner of a highway commission or a trustee of a local township or whatever it might be, what are the issues that are coming up? Go look at the minutes of past board meetings and make a list of those issues.

And then think of those issues in the following terms: How does this affect an individual person? How does this affect a homeowner? How does this affect an employee? How this affect a guy who runs a business and owns a business and hires employees? Go through each of those scenarios in your own mind.

And then think about a policy and how does it intersect their lives. What affect does it have? As you go through issues, you have to literally write this down either on paper or through your keyboard.

And then I think the most important thing is to answer a couple of questions. The proposed policy solution helps more people because… And then you have to answer the question, “What is the because?” That policy helps poor people because it does x, y, or z. Or if you are opposed to something like that, that policy hurts poor people because x, y, and z.

I’ll give you another example. There’s a great debate about minimum wage. So a lot of people think that mandating a higher minimum wage is the best way to help people, especially poor people, when exactly the opposite is true.

So we tend to say things on our side like, “When you raise the minimum wage, 552,000 people across the country are going to lose their jobs. That’s going to hurt people.” That’s a typical argument you hear.

John Tsarpalas: Right.

John Tillman: That’s the wrong way to go about it. What we should do is think about who is an individual who is harmed by raising the minimum wage.

Well, I can tell you who that person is. It is a kid who is growing up on the south side of Chicago, trying to go to school everyday and do his best. He doesn’t want to be in a gang.

He probably has a single mom at home who is working her tail off trying to get him to navigate that gauntlet everyday of going to school and maybe find his first job to learn what work is all about so that he can graduate from high school having learned how to work, put a little money in the family budget, and maybe go onto college or a vocation of some sort or another.

So when he walks to school and he goes down through the neighborhood, he sees a tough neighborhood of struggling entrepreneurs: a barber shop, a convenience store, a gas station, whatever might be there. When there is a low minimum wage, you see help wanted signs in the windows.

He can walk in and perhaps get his first job. Learn what it is to show up every day. Learn what responsibility is like. Learn how to communicate with customers, colleagues, and employers.

But when you raise the minimum wage that same kid walks down the street and the help wanted signs are taken out of the windows. He walks by business after business that can’t afford the higher wage. When he gets to the corner, there is one person waiting for him to make a job offer and it is the gang leader who is going to offer him cash to sell drugs.

Do we want to drive teenage kids who are trying to be heroes into the arms of a gang leader with the only job possible? That’s what happens when you raise the minimum wage.

The worst part of it is you take away his job and you give a kid on the north shore of Chicago, a wealthy neighborhood, a raise who doesn’t need it. The government should stay out of this and let the market take care of itself because that’s what actually helps poor people more.

That’s how you tell a story about minimum wage in a way that I think is winning. I know that works because I’ve used it many times to great affect.

John Tsarpalas: Very good. We could probably do that with just about every issue out there if we just sat down and think about it. Think about it and talk it through if you are confused about it.

John Tillman: An organization I’m involved with called Think Freely Media that you actually are on the board of, John.

John Tsarpalas: Yes, I am.

John Tillman: We have an amazing team of people there who are compiling a master list of issues, just like what you talked about, and coming up with the pro-freedom answers. If someone ever wanted to get a copy of that, I’d be happy to share that. They would just have to send me an email or they could send you an email.

John Tsarpalas: That’d be fine. and for the website, as long as we are talking about it.

John Tillman: Yup.

John Tsarpalas: Very good. We also have a lack of stories. Think of the President. They tend to have somebody there at that State of the Union speech that, “Oh, my gosh, if we cut this, that poor person is going to have a problem.”

I think the stories are there; we just aren’t looking for them. And we are not talking about them. Is there some way to do this in a simpler manner? Or is it just a matter of being on the lookout?

John Tillman: You have to be on the lookout. One of my philosophies in life is a concept in terms of running organizations that I call, “Always be recruiting.” Meaning that even if you aren’t hiring, always be looking for talent.

This applies to stories as well. We should always be looking for a story. A colleague of ours recorded a story, The Businessman, that I’ve known for many years. Back when I owned my Play it Again Sports retail sporting good stores many years ago, there was a supplier of goods to us. I got to know the guy well. Great man, great entrepreneur. He started his own company and rose.

Some years ago, he wrote me an email about how outraged he was about the idea of a progressive tax and a millionaire’s tax because he’s perceived as being a millionaire. I won’t get into the details on the way taxes work on a sub-S corporation, but essentially he’s taxed as if he is making a million dollars. But he is only pulling out a salary of about $120,000 a year out of the business.

John Tsarpalas: After how many years of hard work?

John Tillman: Twenty-five, thirty years.

John Tsarpalas: Right.

John Tillman: So he is a story. I filed him away in my mind. Recently our videographer just went and took his story.

John Tsarpalas: Right.

John Tillman: So we always need to be looking. And they are everywhere around us. When you read the newspapers, you’ll hear the name of somebody. Call that person up; see if you can get their phone number. Talk to them about their story. Go meet with them if you have the time.

We should just in our daily lives always be looking for people. Again, it is always about where the policy intersects somebody’s life.

John Tsarpalas: Perfectly said. One of the things I like about the Illinois Policy Institute website is you have Our Story, which talks about the institute, but then you have Your Story. And it is stories of people who are trying to make it in the free market.

Mostly it is about small business people trying to start a coffee cart or something. And you talk about their story and how it is real to them. That particular story I think the woman left the state because she couldn’t get passed all the red tape in Chicago, Illinois.

John Tillman: Yes, that woman wanted to start a coffee cart on a three-wheel Pedi bike. She wanted to essentially deliver coffee to people. I think Brew Hub was the name of her business.

John Tsarpalas:  Right.

John Tillman: She tried for months to get a license from the city of Chicago to do this. She did all the right things. She went to the city and asked, “How do I get a license?” They gave her some information. And then the run around started.

They would never issue her a license. She went down, I believe, to Austin, Texas and had a license in about an hour and a half. That’s the difference between whether you are pro-freedom or not pro-freedom, whether you are part of a government cartel that decides who picks the winners and losers as opposed to somebody who is simply creating a level playing field for all of us to pursue our dreams.

John Tsarpalas: Right. So when we are talking to the general voter, sort of in the middle, not committed to either party, not someone with a lot of thought principal, the independent, do we use words like pro-freedom and free market? Are those just sort of above their head and we need to keep it real?

John Tillman: That’s a great question. There’s not a simple answer. My general answer is no, we actually don’t. One of the tenants of great communication is you have to sell in the language that somebody consumes.

So when I talk about pro-freedom, there is a time and place for that with any audience. But that is a term that I use with an audience that is a part of the activist movement.

John Tsarpalas: And people listening to this podcast.

John Tillman: Right. When I am talking at a cocktail party about an issue or at a social outing, I almost never use those words. I always talk about things in the language that I try to discern that the individual listener will consume.

For example, I had a conversation recently with a progressive friend of mine about pensions.

John Tsarpalas: And no offense, are they still your friend? They don’t want me around when I talk to a progressive. I’ve lost friends because they found out I am conservative, libertarian.

John Tillman: I’ve had that experience and I’ve discovered they really weren’t my friend. They were just somebody that we were passing in life together for a while until we learned about each other.

John Tsarpalas: But there are some you can actually have a dialogue with?

John Tillman: Yes, I have friends who are definitely on the other side, but we have very civil discussions. Anyway, the point of this particular story was we were talking about public employed pensions. They were expressing that they didn’t think it was fair that these employees were going to have their benefits reduced and the Supreme Court was right to rule that you can’t reduce their benefits.

So I said, “I agree that their benefits shouldn’t be reduced. I think that would be very unfair. Somebody who is already retired, they made a deal and they are already retired. We shouldn’t diminish their benefits and nobody is suggesting we should.

“Of course for people who are currently working, I agree with you it is only fair that whatever they’ve earned through today, they should be able to keep. Just as if they left to go get another job, whatever is vested in their retirement plan, they should keep that. Nobody should reduce that.

“But I think it would be very unfair to the taxpayers to not be able to reform the plan going forward, should they continue to work under a new contract. Shouldn’t we have a right as taxpayers to reform that going forward?”

That’s a very reasonable kind of language. What is fair? What is right? How do you balance the interest between the worker and the taxpayer who funds it? I think it is really important when you are talking with people from the center and center-left to try to use language that is consumable to them.

There’s a tendency for all of us on the right to want to do red meat all the time. This is about expanding our audience. This is about gaining converts. We are trying to convert liberty heathens, and I mean that lovingly, into liberty Christians is you will or whatever faith you might want to pick.

John Tsarpalas: Liberty believers.

John Tillman: Liberty believers, right. So you have to sell in the language the audience consumes. And it has to be done sincerely and genuinely.

I call this part of playing Red Rover. You know, “Red rover, red rover, let Johnny come over.” We are trying to play Red Rover. We are trying to expand our team by having people come over to our side.

So why on earth would we talk to them in a way that is offensive to them? Let’s talk to them in a way about our ideas in language that they are comfortable with. Don’t give quarter on the policy, but give quarter on the tone and the words we use.

John Tsarpalas: I tend to think that our side is always using too many facts. When I was a Libertarian in the eighties, everyone there was an accountant, a computer data person, or an economics person. I was the only one who wasn’t from that world.

And they were always with the facts and the numbers. And, yes, two plus two did equal four. But they weren’t convincing other people because they were too factually oriented.

So many people need stories. So many people need to know the feeling side of this and the fairness side.

John Tillman: Well, that’s exactly right. I think a good example of what you are talking about is a book written by Jonathan Haidt. He is a liberal, but he talks about the fact that the way people change their mind about something is you have to go through the heart first before the mind will open up to the idea.

That is completely contrary to how we think. We think reason. We think rational thought is how we convince people.

And people themselves, left or right or in the middle or a-political, as human beings always think we make decisions based on rational, reason thought. It’s just not true. All the social science shows it is factually not true.

All of us make an emotional, instantaneous decision about something. And then we back fill with data and other facts to justify the emotional decision we’ve just made.

The left really understands this well, which is why they are good at storytelling and having these emotional heroes of their stories always out in front of what they are doing.

We tend to think, especially our intelligencia if you will, that is selling out. It is all about data. It’s all about the facts. It’s about the utility of our ideas. If we just educate people on that, by gosh they will come over to our side.

Well, that’s a losing hand. We are getting our butts kicked doing that. We have to engage the way the audience engages. The audience, as you point out, engages through emotion.

Key triggers of emotion are a sense of fairness, a sense of righteousness, a sense of justice, a sense that people shouldn’t be cheated unfairly by the system. So we have to explain to them why the system that the progressives advocate for is the one actually cheating people.

A good example of this is there was a horrible incident during the 2014 election on a Monday morning in October where Governor Quinn issued a press release from his campaign accusing me of being a racist, calling on now Governor Rauner to disassociate with me as an individual as well as the Illinois Policy Institute.

We just happened to have a study that showed that black male employment was at a record low. So we did a couple of different things.

I went on the air and talked about the outrage of Governor Quinn accusing someone of racism for his personal political gain without facts. We talked about the specific charge he made and I refuted that quite clearly. There was a video to illustrate that.

And then I talked about the sadness that under this governor, he has stewarded over a time when black males had the worst employment they’ve ever had in the history of the state. This is a tragedy going on in the south side, the west side, in Rockford, Decatur, East St. Louis. And he owns that.

And so that’s what I mean taking the moral high ground back and putting them on defense. Their policies are hurting the very people they say they want to help. Our ideas actually will help by putting more people to work, giving them greater freedom of choice in education, and all the rest of it.

John Tsarpalas: It is sad. It really is sad.

John Tillman: I went to school in Detroit, Michigan. I lived right off the Wing State Campus. Anybody who knows a little bit about Detroit will know what I mean when I say the Cass Corridor. I lived a block off the Cass Corridor. I lived in the neighborhood, on the fringe of a university campus that was very diverse.

It is heartbreaking to see the carnage that happens in urban America, cities largely run by progressives with progressive policies fully in place for decade after decade after decade. Today they will themselves tell you that things are bad. And yet they have no accountability for what they have wrought themselves.

John Tsarpalas: Wow. Are there any thoughts for our little local candidate out there, someone who wants to run for their park board?

John Tillman: I think they should think deeply about why they want to run. I think there are two kinds of people who run for office. And I hope everyone listening to this podcast you are doing, John, is of one sort.

There is the person who wants to run for office because they like the glamour of it, if you will. And even a park board has a little bit of glamour.

John Tsarpalas: Sure.

John Tillman: Even being a local trustee of your village has a little bit of glamour. And of course it could be a way to rise.

Some people get into the politics because they like the game. They like the showmanship. They like to be on the inside and have all the knowledge. It’s just their thing. Just like some people like hunting, fishing, golfing, tennis, whatever particular hobby it might be.

For some people, there is the juice to the game. They like it. And those people adopt policy positions derivative of their ambition to be politicians. That’s the wrong way to get involved.

The right way to get involved is to think long and hard about what you want to do. If you ran for office, what do you want to accomplish? What is your guiding philosophy? What is the filter you are going to use to make decisions when tough votes come in front of you? Because tough votes will come in front of you.

If you haven’t developed a filter before you run, a sense of guiding principals and philosophy, you will become malleable and the system will crush you. And you will no longer be a person of principle, but rather a person of expediency.

So I think the most important thing people should do when they think about running is why am I running? Am I running to go do something or be somebody? Don’t run unless you want to go do something and understand clearly what it is and have a filter.

My filter is really simple. I’m asked all the time how we make decisions on policy. How do I personally make decisions on policy? It’s really, really, really simple. Does this policy empower people or does this policy expand and empower government more?

I’m for empowering people. I’m against expanding the power of government. In fact, I want to reduce it. It’s a very simple filter. Everything can go through that filter. There’s always a filter that is available and it can apply to local government, state government, federal government.

John Tsarpalas: People listening to this podcast, go back to podcast #4, Know What You Think, in which Kristina Keats, Tina and I had a long discussion about thinking about what you believe, your guiding principles, and the issues that are going to come up in your race.

Give it some real, deliberative thought on how you are going to answer that question and why you think and believe that. Have that order long before you put your name on a ballot.

Are there any resources for people to possibly find more information?

John Tillman: Of course they can go to, which is the website of the Illinois Policy Institute and it’s companion advocacy organization called Illinois Policy Action.

They can also go to, which is our entity that is focused on helping people be better communicators and marketers.

Illinois Opportunity Project, if you google that, you will find their website. It also has a lot of information on how to run for office. They don’t run campaigns, but they teach and educate you on what it is like to be a candidate, how to become a candidate, and they have a variety of training programs there.

Americans for Prosperity is an excellent organization. They have a chapter here in the state. They do good work. I would check out their chapter site.

John Tsarpalas: And there’s chapters in different states throughout the country, all over the country.

John Tillman: A guy called Adam Andrzejewski runs an organization called Open the Books. They do good work. I think that’s worth spending some time on.

Institute for Truth in Accounting is another good organization that does work. All of these can help you learn about government, public policy, and politics.

John Tsarpalas: Thank you. Contact info?

John Tillman: People can email me directly at

John Tsarpalas: Thank you, John.

John Tillman: Thanks for having me on, John. It was very fun.

John Tsarpalas: It was very fun. I appreciate it.

So here’s some homework. Start thinking through the issues in your district. What are those issues? What are you there to improve, make better, correct, or leave status quo?

Think about how and who is affected and how your policy will help people. Start finding some stories of people who have been helped somewhere else by this. But you use it with real people and real terms.

You do it with descriptive words. You do it with feeling words. You do it with fairness. Have some facts; those are always good. And we are about facts and we probably have that already. And feel it!

If you enjoyed our show today, please leave us a review on iTunes. Spread the word. We need questions from you. We would love to have you write a question. You can reach me at

Or go to and on the right hand side, there is a little tab where you can click. If you have any kind of a microphone on your computer, you can record a live message. I’d be happy to play that here on the podcast and answer your questions.

We are here to help you. We are here to get you elected. We are here to motivate you to run for office. Let us know how we can help.

Thank you for listening and we’ll talk to you next week.

John Tillman: Why am I running? Am I running to go do something or be somebody? Don’t run unless you want to go do something and understand clearly what it is and have a filter.

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