The Third Rails of American Politics

Whew, we’ve had a busy couple weeks here at the Crowd.  Lots of good posts and some even better comments. Thank you one and all for making the SRC worth visiting – as it turns out Voltaire didn’t say, “Some of you are whacked but I’m totally behind your right to say any crazy thing which pops into your head.”

Of course, some of the things you might say will lead to eating alone in the lunchroom.  As free a society as we are in terms of expression, there are some places you just don’t go in American politics.  There are no laws per se about most of them – some “hate crimes” laws cover speech and there are public safety type laws about shouting “Fire!” in the theater and such things (“Bomb” in the airport security line is also ill-advised) – but there are certain unspoken but pretty rigidly enforced social conventions that most of us – politicians and the like – avoid like the crazy guy on the corner walking in circles muttering to himself (“That’s a mirror, Jon.”)  Step on them and you’re zapped with 50,000 volts (or amps or watts, I forget which one is the killer) of political excommunication.  Even stepping too close to one of these “third rails” can be a fatal or near-fatal political experience.

Sometimes it’s hard to detect the absence of something, but – like stuff that’s not porn – you know it when you don’t see it.  Here’s a few of the America’s no-fly zones that our politicians avoid:

  1. Not supporting Israel.
  2. Criticism of”soldiers on the ground.”
  3. Criticism of “working men and women.”
  4. Race- or gender-based differences.

What are some others?  What won’t be popping out of the word processors of campaign policy advisors and speechwriters – on either side of the aisle – this fall?  Should any of them be dragged out and debated?

- Austin sample invoice template fine

16 Responses

  1. I think a one-word “yes” or “no” answer is off limits for any politician. Joe Biden and Ron Paul occasionally break this law.

    You mentioned not saying “bomb” in airport security line. I was just at the San Diego airport a couple of weeks ago, and they actually have a sign — first I’ve seen — that says (paraphrasing, but not much), “Don’t make jokes about bomb, guns, hijacking and the like. We have no choice but to take it seriously.”

    I thought that was rather interesting. I’ve always heard people suggest that, and I’ve always chosen to abide for fear of a full-body cavity search or something, but that was the first posted warning I’d seen.

  2. One of my favorite moments in the airline business was when the head of security told me that a couple of times every year we get a bomb threat over the phone that turns out to be some asshole who’s running late for his plane (it’s always a guy). One of these made the news last year.

    - Austin

  3. I like the topic. There are also bipartisan bans on seriously discussing…

    …funding high quality orphanages v. keeping kids in destructive families or shuffling them through a disjointed foster family system.
    …the existence of God.
    … the basic tenets of any religion with sizeable numbers of voters.
    …criminalization of alcohol.
    …decriminalization of drugs.
    …banning tobacco.
    …eliminating the drinking age.
    …making the law neutrual on the subject of the number of allowable spouses.
    …which new immigrant groups are doing worse than others, and why.
    …whether businesses are universally more efficient and effective than government.
    …whether politicians and government employees are really first and foremost “public servants.”
    …whether recruiting grossly uninformed citizens to vote truly strengthens democracy.

    I’m not saying I’m for any of those things. I don’t want to eat alone in the lunchroom either. I’m just saying, they are verboten topics in the political world and most private conversations. Though no serious conversation about them is possible and the mere mention of them would end the viability of strong candidacies, we might be a more open, informed and honest society if we allowed some of those conversations to happen.

  4. …do doctors really always know better than government about what is right for the patient.

  5. Ooo, those are good ones. Your list reminds me that many of our political taboos are on social questions.

    I thought of one a couple that I should have remembered the first time:

    Social Security
    Gun ownership

    - Austin

  6. Assault’s on individual liberties
    Social Security reform
    Work for Welfare
    ‘Normal’ global variation
    Ineffectiveness of mass transit
    Congressional earmarks
    Self responsibility
    Failure of public schools
    Illegal immigration
    Teen pregnancy
    Over taxation
    Self determination
    The Death Tax
    Runaway college spending

  7. People STILL don’t want to talk about the shenaigans that threw the 1824 election to John Quincy Adams.

    And all that business with the tariffs and his postmaster general.

    Whispers at Washington cocktail functions, maybe, but never out loud.

  8. LTP -

    Some of those I would classify as not third-rail issues. You can have a debate about tax rates and take most any position you like on that question within a pretty broad range and not be politically electrocuted. Ditto, mass transit, self-responsibility, inheritance tax, cost of college etc.

    And there are some issues where a specific position is political suicide – being for illegal immigration or teen pregnancy or against personal responsibility – but the underlying issue is not off-limits.

    - Austin

  9. Hornseth -

    Be careful; the black helicopters are looking for you.

    - Austin

  10. …why measurement techniques haven’t been updated to accurately reflect the number of people living in poverty in the U.S.
    …whether tax cuts truly deliver the economic benefits they are purported to deliver.
    …why Americans consistently work more hours/year than workers in any other industrialized nation.
    …why dogs are superior in every way to cats.

  11. Can I play?

    How about “American exceptionalism” — You can discuss whether other countries have better healthcare or manufacturing or cuisine, but could you have an intelligent political conversation questioning America’s special right of world leadership?

    Likewise…

    …should we increase the authority of international law over the United States?

    …is capitalism the best economic system?

    …is nationalization of certain industries beneficial for some countries? Could it be beneficial here?

    …is democracy the best form of government for all countries?

    Not that I’m questioning any of this, just sayin’…

    ok, I’ll go sit over there …

  12. …suggesting that MN do away with the caucus system?

    Anyway, all of the crap coming out of the mouths of various preachers recently seems to be making it easier to question the role of religion in politics. Clearly, being religious doesn’t make you a better (or smarter) person.

    Peter

  13. Is America the Last Best Hope on earth? Lincoln said that. Can we question America’s greatness? A Strib cartoon showed a lapel pin of earth, not the US Flag — what if a candidate wore an earth pin, or a UN pin?
    Lisa and I bought and flew a UN flag right after 9/11 when everyone everywhere had US flags up. We felt we were edging toward the third rail.

    And what about truckers? Much moaning over independent truckers losing their jobs and selling their rigs with diesel prices so high. Would a candidate touch a third rail (independent beer-drinkin’ country-music-lovin’ shit-kickin’ descendants of the cowboys are real by-god ‘muricans) by saying — “We need to shift jobs and freight from trucks to railroads for long hauls — we’ve served inefficiency by subsidizing truckers with highway maintenance for too long, burning way too much fuel per ton of freight moved.” Lose the trucks. Lose the election.

    Great discussion. Love the God idea — an atheist or agnostic running?

  14. We’ve discussed the whole “can’t say anything bad about Israel” issue here. This clip from the Daily Show covers the same ground.

    http://tinyurl.com/62lwsr

  15. [...] Posted on July 10, 2008 by Mike Keliher A while back, Brother Jon started a great conversation about the “third rails” of American politics, those topics that apparently only the ballsiest or the stupidest politicians [...]

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