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 metaphor is most commonly used in North America and was first used by Tip O'Neill, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives during the Reagan presidency in reference to Social Security.[1][2] The "third rail of American politics" is still commonly said to be cutting Social Security;[3] the "third rail" of Canadian politics is said to be public health care[citation needed] or advocating an overhaul of the pension system.[4]


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.[citation needed] 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 no longer become "third-rail" only when elected 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]


  1. ^ Rick Shenkman. "When Did Social Security Become the Third Rail of American Politics?". George Mason University. Retrieved 21 October 2014. 
  2. ^ William Safire (8 February 2007). "On Language: Third Rail". The New York Times. Retrieved 21 October 2014. 
  3. ^ Wolfsthal, Jon B. (December 2004). "The Nuclear Third Rail: Can Fuel Cycle Capabilities Be Limited?". Arms Control Today 34 (10): 11. 
  4. ^ J. Leech, J. McNish, The Third Rail, McClelland & Stewart, 2013.
  5. ^ 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, "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.'"
  6. ^ Going Deep: Race and the Third Rail, 07/04/2014, Allison Samuels, Huffington Post
  7. ^ 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."
  8. ^ 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."
  9. ^ "Third rail politics" by Chicago Tribune
  10. ^ "Why is Social Security Called the Third Rail of American Politics?" by Senior Living -
  11. ^ "Antidumping: The Third Rail of Trade Policy" by - Council on Foreign Relations
  12. ^ Christine M. Flowers (24 August 2012). "Searching for light and truth in the Todd Akin controversy". The Philadelphia Enquirer. Retrieved 2012-08-27. 
  13. ^
  14. ^

External links[edit]

Jim Leech and Jacquie McNish: The Third Rail: Confronting our Pension Failures, Signal Books, 2013.