Third rail of politics

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For other uses, see Third rail (disambiguation).
This third rail, used to power trains, carries hundreds of volts of electricity, likely resulting in death by electrocution for anyone who comes into direct contact with it. Third rail political issues are similarly "charged".

The third rail of a nation's politics is a metaphor for any issue so controversial that it is "charged" and "untouchable"; any politician or public official who dares to broach the subject will invariably suffer politically. The term is most commonly used in North America. The "third rail of American politics" is often said to be cutting Social Security; the "third rail" of Canadian politics is said to be public health care.[citation needed]


The third rail in a railway is the exposed electrical conductor that carries high voltage power. Stepping on the high-voltage third rail usually results in electrocution. The use of the term in politics serves to emphasize the "shock" that results from raising the controversial idea, and the "political death" (or political suicide) that the unaware or provocative politician would encounter as a result. Disagreement may occur over whether a specific issue is a "third rail" issue. What is considered a "third rail" issue varies by country. Third-rail issues usually only die when politicians who have proven their credentials on related matters ignore the taboo and openly challenge the controversial issue.[citation needed]

Examples of usage in American politics[edit]


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