Third Rail

The third rail: touch it and your dead! pic: railway-technical.com

If you have ever taken mass transit in an American city 9and few of us have outside of New York, San Francisco and a few other places) you have encountered a third rail. The third rail is an extra rail used for supplying electricity to trains.  Something that supplies electricity to trains also supplies electricity to body when touched – so, you heard it here, never ever touch the third rail.  In fact, just don’t touch rails at all and you’ll be fine.

Like litmus test the expression third rail has a metaphorical meaning in politics.  A topic is a “third rail” when it is controversial and charged that anybody how takes a position, or even “touches” the subject will suffer gravely if not terminally in politics.

There are in fact plenty of such third rail topics and here are the most well-known ones:

  • enacting gun-control laws
  • proposing tax increases
  • views on abortion
  • suggesting to cut spending on defense
  • views on immigration
  • proposing “socialist” program such a more secure state-funded social security net
  • being an atheist

The list goes on …

Other countries might have third rail topics, too, but the US seems to have a remarkable number of them and on topics where one would assume that reasonable people could disagree without getting nasty about it.

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