For those unfamiliar with the term, "third rail" is a phrase that entered the American political lexicon in the early 1980s to describe an issue--Social Security reform was the particular issue at that time--so politically charged that touching it means certain death at the polls. The term is, of course, derived from the rail of a subway line that carries high-voltage electrical current to run the trains. William Safire traces the metaphorical use of the term back to Kirk O'Donnell, an aide to Speaker of the House Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill.
Over the years other issues, including Medicare reform, gun control, and criticism of Israel have been called the third rail of American politics. Health care is said to be the third rail of Canadian politics. Now, Aaron B. O'Connell, a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, makes a strong case that criticism of the military has become a new third rail in the American political system.
O'Connell takes as his starting points President Dwight D. Eisenhower's well-known farewell address in which he warned against "the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex." While O'Connell believes that the military-industrial complex has not influenced foreign policy or distorted the economy in the ways that Eisenhower feared, he argues that the American culture has been militarized by the permanent war preparations against which he warned. "Support the troops" has come to mean the military should never be questioned and its spending should never be cut. "Today," O'Connell writes, "there are just a select few in public life who are willing to question the military or its spending, and those who do--from the libertarian Ron Paul to the leftist Dennis J. Kucinich--are dismissed as unrealistic."
The real problem, as O'Connell describes it, is this: "That which is left unexamined eventually becomes invisible, and as a result, few Americans today are giving sufficient consideration to the full range of violent activities the government undertakes in their names."
In the aftermath of the election, it would be good if the military-industrial complex--and the level of defense spending in a time of budgetary constraints--could be examined critically by members of both political parties. There is a way that they could do this without committing political suicide. After Democrats and Republicans in 1983 came together in support of the Greenspan Commission's recommendations on Social Security reform, Kirk O'Donnell told Tom Oliphant that the political third rail differs from the one in the subway in this respect: "If a Republican foot and a Democratic foot touch it simultaneously, nothing happens."