Third rail (politics)
The third rail of a nation's politics is a metaphor for any issue so controversial that it is "charged" and "untouchable" to the extent that any politician or public official who dares to broach the subject will invariably suffer politically. The metaphor comes from the high-voltage third rail in some electric railway systems.
Touching a third rail can result in electrocution, so usage of the metaphor in political situations relates to the risk of "political suicide" that a person would face by raising certain taboo subjects or having points of view that are either censored, shunned or considered highly controversial or offensive to advocate or even mention.
It is most commonly used in North America. Though commonly attributed to Tip O'Neill, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 1977 to 1987, it seems to have been coined by O'Neill aide Kirk O'Donnell in 1982 in reference to Social Security.
American examples of usage
A wide range of issues might be claimed detrimental to politicians tackling them, but those below have all been explicitly described using the "third rail" metaphor:
- Withdrawal of Social Security and Medicare benefits
- Debate of race issues
- Antidumping and countervailing duty withdrawal
- Opposition to abortion for rape victims
- Resuming the draft
- National content policy in export finance
- The role that gifted education plays in modern public school segregation
- Debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and U.S. support for Israel
- Debate about mass immigration and "White Replacement"
- Diverting water from the Great Lakes to the Southwest
- Guns, including semi-automatic weapons and child safety locks
- California's Proposition 13 on property tax
Outside the U.S.
- Reforming or privatizing public health care
- Reforming or privatizing the Canada Pension Plan
- Amending the Constitution of Canada
- Questioning the political status of Taiwan
- Advocating Hong Kong independence
- Any of the issues affected by official censorship in China
- Questioning internet censorship by the Great Firewall
- Mention of or related events of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre
- Mention of the Uyghur genocide in Xinjiang internment camps
- Mention of the Persecution of Falun Gong
- Mention of the East Turkestan independence movement
- Homosexuality
- Corruption
- The Sedition Act makes it illegal to "promote feelings of ill-will or hostility between different races or classes of the population".
- Asch conformity experiments – Study of if and how individuals yielded to or defied a majority group
- Communal reinforcement – Social phenomenon
- Foot-in-the-door technique
- Groupthink – Psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people
- Overton window – Range of ideas tolerated in public discourse
- Spiral of silence – Political science and mass communication theory
- Rick Shenkman. "When Did Social Security Become the Third Rail of American Politics?". George Mason University. Retrieved October 21, 2014.
- William Safire (February 8, 2007). "On Language: Third Rail". The New York Times. Retrieved October 21, 2014.
- Wolfsthal, Jon B. (December 2004). "The Nuclear Third Rail: Can Fuel Cycle Capabilities Be Limited?". Arms Control Today. 34 (10): 11.
- "Third rail politics".
- ""Why is Social Security Called the Third Rail of American Politics?" by Senior Living". About.com.
- "Medicare: the new Third Rail of American politics?", The Washington Post
- Still a House Divided: Race and Politics in Obama's America, Desmond S. King, Rogers M. Smith, Reprint edition December 8, 2013, Princeton University Press, books.google.com: "Sociologist John David Skrentny exaggerates only slightly when he says that at this point, advocacy of racial preferences was a 'third rail' in American politics: 'touch it and you die.'"
- Koehler, Robert (July 4, 2014). "Going Deep: Race and the Third Rail". HuffPost.
- Daring to Touch the Third Rail, Robert Koehler, Newsweek, 01/19/08, "Obama has avoided being pigeonholed as the "black candidate" and has mostly steered clear of talking about race on the campaign trail (at least until his recent fracas with Hillary Clinton over whether she besmirched King's legacy by noting President Lyndon Johnson's role in the Civil Rights Act). But Michelle hasn't backed away from discussing her experiences of race and prejudice."
- Short-Circuiting the New Third Rail in Politics, July 20, 2012, Suzanne Fields, RealClearPolitics, "Race has become the third rail of American politics. Touch it, and you die. It's the rail some of our angriest Democrats want to ride Mitt Romney and the Republicans out of town on."
- Mankiw, N. Gregory; Swagel, Phillip L. (July 1, 2005). "Antidumping: The Third Rail of Trade Policy" – via www.foreignaffairs.com.
- Christine M. Flowers (August 24, 2012). "Searching for light and truth in the Todd Akin controversy". The Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved August 27, 2012.
- ""The Case for the Draft" by Phillip Carter and Paul Glastris". Archived from the original on March 3, 2005.
-  U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) Actions Needed to Promote Competitiveness and International Cooperation February 7, 2012
-  New York Times. Desegregation Plan: Eliminate All Gifted Programs in New York. August 26, 2019.
-  Mother Jones. Grabbing the Third Rail. July 18, 2006.
- "Grabbing the Third Rail", 2006, Paige Austin, Mother Jones
- "Touching The Third Rail: Israel and New York Politics", Jonathan Tasini, Huffington Post
- Levitz, Eric (August 23, 2018). "Trump Echoes Neo-Nazi Propaganda About South Africa (That He Heard on Fox News)". Intelligencer. Retrieved July 20, 2021.
- "Democrats call for 'big, bold' action on immigration as Biden's bill is introduced". The Washington Post.
- Wilson, Gary. "Third Rail Proposal: Selling Great Lakes water proposed to lower lake levels". Great Lakes Now. Retrieved July 20, 2021.
- "An experienced Jerry Brown vows to build on what he's already done". Los Angeles Times. October 19, 2014. Retrieved October 21, 2014.
- Peña, Alejandro Milcíades (October 6, 2016). "Argentina's president makes the ultimate diplomatic mistake – talking about the Falkland Islands". The Conversation. Retrieved June 12, 2020.
- "Turnbull says climate change has become a third rail for the Liberal Party". The Guardian. November 17, 2018.
- Krauss, Clifford (February 26, 2006). "As Canada's Slow-Motion Public Health System Falters..." The New York Times.
- Leech, J.; McNish, J. (2013). The Third Rail. McClelland & Stewart.
- "Autobahn unlimited: Saying speed limit to a German is like talking gun control in the US". www.handelsblatt.com. Retrieved February 15, 2022.
- Landler, Mark (March 16, 2007). "Call for Speed Limit Has German Blood at 178 M.P.H. Boil". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved February 15, 2022.
- Awasthi, Rajul (September 25, 2017). "Should agricultural income be taxed?". The Economic Times. Retrieved June 12, 2020.
- Curtis, Chris (May 30, 2018). "A majority support liberalising policy towards cannabis". YouGov. Retrieved October 5, 2018.
Drug policy has often been considered a 'third rail' issue in British politics.
- Massie, Alex (February 1, 2011). "Bitter Medicine". Foreign Policy. Retrieved April 15, 2020.
- Lent, Adam (June 9, 2017). "Political uncertainty must not mean backsliding on social care reform". New Local Government Network. Retrieved October 5, 2018.
The assumption could well emerge that social care has proved to be a 'third rail' in politics killing anyone who touches it.
- "After Scotland's No, the UK's Devolution Revolution". Fisher Investments. September 22, 2014. Retrieved October 5, 2018.
The West Lothian question has been the third rail of UK politics for nearly 20 years
- Zagoria, Adam (October 7, 2019). "NBA Takes 'Unprincipled' And 'Cowardly' Stance On China And Hong Kong". Forbes. Retrieved October 7, 2019.
- Travlos, Konstantinos (March 1, 2014). "Why the Crimea is the Third Rail of International Politics". Duck of Minerva. Retrieved June 12, 2020.