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Safeguarding a Nonpartisan Foreign Service


This is a proposal for a baseline standard

of political discretion: keep our ballots

secret, along with the preferences

we bring to them.


n 15 years of working for the federal

government, I’ve always tried to

remain diligently apolitical. I believe

that I am most effective in advanc-

ing or implementing the policies and

interests of the U.S. government when I

haven’t previously articulated my per-

sonal opinions on those policies or the

elected leaders making them.

I was introduced to the concept

of “principled nonvoting” as a young

ROTC cadet. Abstention from politics,

to the extreme of not voting, was part

of the professional ethic of a nonpoliti-

cal military. It was meant to reassure

elected leaders—and the public—that

the military’s loyalty would not have

to be questioned every four years. The

practice prevailed among the officer

corps in the U.S. military from the end

of the Civil War until the aftermath of

World War II, when it began to break


Over the years, I have personally

found principled nonvoting to be a

valuable practice, yet I have also repeat-

edly questioned that belief. Voting is a

civic responsibility—not just a right—

and that consideration has often chal-

lenged my thinking on this matter.

There have also been elections where

I thought passionately that the outcome

mattered, and I strongly supported (or

opposed) one alternative over another.

But each time I have returned to the

arguments supporting principled

Matt Tompkins is currently a vice consul in Santo Domingo and previously served in

Guatemala City. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he held intelligence and policy

positions with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and served as a U.S. Army officer.

nonvoting and concluded that, for me at

least, they take precedence.

Never has that belief and that prac-

tice been as difficult as in 2016. It’s one

thing to disagree with the policy judg-

ments of a party or candidate, but it is

quite another to believe that a candidate

is fundamentally unfit for office and

would pose a bona fide danger to the

republic if elected: Yet I remain silent.

The Value of


Being apolitical is actually pretty

easy in epochs of the muddled middle.

Apart from the most committed parti-

san, did anyone really feel at the time

that the country would have been led in

wildly different directions depending on

the outcome of Bush/Clinton, Clinton/

Dole or Gore/Bush? The true test of

the principle of an apolitical bureau-

cracy—and its essential value—is when

one side offers a candidate, platform or

policy so fundamentally unacceptable

that every fiber of your being compels

you to speak out against it.

Opinions about each of our last three

presidents were relatively polarized,

either due to their actions, policies,

attributes or the political climate at the

time. So I feel safe in assuming that

anyone reading this can think of at least

one friend or colleague who regularly

voiced disdain for one or another of

them, whether in the form of a shared

link on Facebook, idle talk at a bar or

something more formal and politically

active. How would those opinions shade

your confidence in the opinion-makers’

diligence implementing the policies of

their despised commander in chief?

Between career stints in the Army, at

the FBI and now at State during those

three presidencies, I have repeatedly

heard such opinions expressed about

candidates, sitting presidents and for-

mer presidents. Never, in my experience,

has such opining improved the dogma-

tists’ ability to accomplish their mis-

sions—in fact, it is often easy to identify

ways that it has detracted from it.

How can you effectively motivate

subordinates to work on a task when

you’ve made clear your personal oppo-

sition to the policy it supports? How can

you effectively advance a position when

you’ve made clear your disdain for the

person who established it?