Third rail (politics)

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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.

This third rail, used to power trains, would probably result in the death by electrocution of anyone who comes into direct contact with it.

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,[1] 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.[2]

American examples of usageEdit

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:

Outside the U.S.Edit





United KingdomEdit



The term OB marker ("out of bounds marker", a golf term)[citation needed] is widely used in Singapore for forbidden topics, such as:

International politicsEdit

See alsoEdit


  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. ^ "Third rail politics".
  5. ^ ""Why is Social Security Called the Third Rail of American Politics?" by Senior Living".
  6. ^ "Medicare: the new Third Rail of American politics?", The Washington Post
  7. ^ 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.'"
  8. ^ Koehler, Robert (4 July 2014). "Going Deep: Race and the Third Rail".
  9. ^ 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."
  10. ^ 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."
  11. ^ Mankiw, N. Gregory; Swagel, Phillip L. (1 July 2005). "Antidumping: The Third Rail of Trade Policy" – via
  12. ^ Christine M. Flowers (24 August 2012). "Searching for light and truth in the Todd Akin controversy". The Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved 2012-08-27.
  13. ^
  14. ^ [1] U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) Actions Needed to Promote Competitiveness and International Cooperation 07.02.2012
  15. ^ [2] New York Times. Desegregation Plan: Eliminate All Gifted Programs in New York. Aug 26 2019.
  16. ^ [3] Mother Jones. Grabbing the Third Rail. July 18, 2006.
  17. ^ "Grabbing the Third Rail", 2006, Paige Austin, Mother Jones
  18. ^ "Touching The Third Rail: Israel and New York Politics", Jonathan Tasini, Huffington Post
  19. ^ Levitz, Eric (2018-08-23). "Trump Echoes Neo-Nazi Propaganda About South Africa (That He Heard on Fox News)". Intelligencer. Retrieved 2021-07-20.
  20. ^ "Democrats call for 'big, bold' action on immigration as Biden's bill is introduced". The Washington Post.
  21. ^ Wilson, Gary. "Third Rail Proposal: Selling Great Lakes water proposed to lower lake levels". Great Lakes Now. Retrieved 2021-07-20.
  22. ^ "An experienced Jerry Brown vows to build on what he's already done". Los Angeles Times. October 19, 2014. Retrieved October 21, 2014.
  23. ^ Peña, Alejandro Milcíades (6 October 2016). "Argentina's president makes the ultimate diplomatic mistake – talking about the Falkland Islands". The Conversation. Retrieved 12 June 2020.
  24. ^ "Turnbull says climate change has become a third rail for the Liberal Party". The Guardian. 17 November 2018.
  25. ^ Krauss, Clifford (26 February 2006). "As Canada's Slow-Motion Public Health System Falters..." The New York Times.
  26. ^ Leech, J.; McNish, J. (2013). The Third Rail. McClelland & Stewart.
  27. ^ Awasthi, Rajul (25 September 2017). "Should agricultural income be taxed?". The Economic Times. Retrieved 12 June 2020.
  28. ^ Curtis, Chris (30 May 2018). "A majority support liberalising policy towards cannabis". YouGov. Retrieved 5 October 2018. Drug policy has often been considered a 'third rail' issue in British politics.
  29. ^ Massie, Alex (1 February 2011). "Bitter Medicine". Foreign Policy. Retrieved 15 April 2020.
  30. ^ Lent, Adam (9 June 2017). "Political uncertainty must not mean backsliding on social care reform". New Local Government Network. Retrieved 5 October 2018. The assumption could well emerge that social care has proved to be a 'third rail' in politics killing anyone who touches it.
  31. ^ "After Scotland's No, the UK's Devolution Revolution". Fisher Investments. 22 September 2014. Retrieved 5 October 2018. The West Lothian question has been the third rail of UK politics for nearly 20 years
  32. ^ Zagoria, Adam (7 October 2019). "NBA Takes 'Unprincipled' And 'Cowardly' Stance On China And Hong Kong". Forbes. Retrieved 7 October 2019.
  33. ^ Travlos, Konstantinos (1 March 2014). "Why the Crimea is the Third Rail of International Politics". Duck of Minerva. Retrieved 12 June 2020.