Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns."
New York (CNN) -- "I have here in my hand a list of 205 communists ..."
When asked by a constituent at a town hall, "What percentage of the American legislature do you think are card-carrying Marxists?"
"That's a fair question," West replied. "I believe there's about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party that are members of the Communist Party."
Keep in mind that this is the man Sarah Palin recently recommended be Mitt Romney's vice presidential nominee.
And not only did West not apologize -- or receive significant criticism from his fellow Republicans -- his revealing response was to raise funds off it.
The number West picked out was apparently based on the number of congressmen affiliated with the Congressional Progressive Caucus. This is an organization of the most liberal members of Congress, but to call them communists is a slander splashed with blood.
Communists, of course, murdered more than 100 million people in the past century, if you add up the rough total of butchery by Vladimir Lenin (Soviet Union), Joseph Stalin (Soviet Union), Mao Zedong (China) and Pol Pot (Cambodia). This is the reason people were understandably offended at Miami Manager Ozzie Guillen's recent comments professing admiration for Cuban Communist dictator Fidel Castro.
But there were no widespread protests or requests for censure in West's case. Instead it was greeted as an almost unremarkable part of the new normal.
A military man of West's rank understands the magnitude of his misstatement. So I'm assuming that he was sincere in the accusation.
To equate liberals in Congress with communists is like equating conservatives in Congress with fascists -- something only the most brain-dead Occupy protester would attempt.
And just for a moment imagine if a liberal member of Congress made an equal and opposite accusation, saying that all the members of the tea party caucus were Nazis. It would be rightly greeted with wall-to-wall outrage.
But the asymmetric polarization of our politics has made such accusations within the easy reach of politically successful ideologues at unguarded moments.
West's comments were simply extensions of U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann's infamous statement in 2008 about how then-candidate Barack Obama -- and many Democratic members of Congress -- held "anti-American views."
They really believe this stuff: Anyone who is not avowedly conservative is considered liberal -- and therefore anyone who is avowedly liberal is considered communist. This is not a little insane.
It is this logic also that allows conservative activists to paint Obama as socialist or communist. Anything even slightly left of center is immediately seen as extreme. Thereby ideas embraced by Republicans even a decade ago -- such as the individual mandate to buy health insurance -- are now seen as radical and a clear attempt to undermine the U.S. Constitution and replace freedom with socialism.
This is what happens when politics starts looking like a cult with litmus tests and loyalty oaths and periodic purges of anyone who dissents. Perspective is the first thing abandoned.
And when a member of your "team" says something extreme, it is either ignored or excused by invoking extreme statements from the other side of the ideological gulf -- therefore the conservative response to Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a slut was to try and make the debate about Bill Maher's past statements about Sarah Palin.
An insensitive but not entirely inaccurate statement by liberal pundit Hilary Rosen is suddenly seen as serving as a surrogate for the Obama campaign despite their immediate denunciations of it. Extending this logic, Mitt Romney will be held that responsible for anything extreme conservative talking heads say in this campaign.
Fundraising off extreme statements is just the latest innovation -- something even more cynical than anything Joe McCarthy might have tried. At least for now, West is not a new McCarthy. He's not a fearful force, but a fringe voice in Congress.
But the ratcheting up of rhetoric has been occurring for so long that we almost don't notice it anymore. This feeds the cycle of incitement that is polarizing our politics. It will only stop when members of the two parties start condemning extreme comments made by members of their own team. And if elected officials start to equate liberals with communists, it is time to break the glass in case of emergency, because we are losing any sense of perspective in American politics.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.