Editor's note: John P. Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America."
(CNN) -- Carl Paladino's anti-gay statements at a Brooklyn synagogue Sunday didn't surprise me -- New York's GOP nominee for governor is a gaffe machine constantly on the verge of careening out of control.
What surprised me was that his comments about gays were not a gaffe. They were scripted. This divisiveness was a strategic decision.
It's just the latest example of the politics of incitement -- rhetorical bomb-throwing designed to polarize. The politics of incitement uses hate and fear to stoke the fires of hyper-partisanship. It exploits the media's impulse to cover anything that smacks of sensationalism or scandal.
It is the same strategy that the would-be Koran-burning pastor used to go from a congregation of 50 people in Gainesville, Florida, to the cover of 50 international newspapers overnight. The only rule in the politics of incitement is this: There is no such thing as too extreme.
Paladino's gay gambit worked, to some extent -- the next morning he was on every national network morning news program explaining his comments and, amazingly, playing the victim card.
Campaign aides made it clear that this was part of a strategy to appeal to the Catholic voters who make up 40 percent of the New York electorate while putting Democratic opponent Andrew Cuomo on defense: "Carl Paladino's position on this is exactly equivalent to the Catholic Church," Paladino's campaign manager Michael Caputo said. "And if Andrew Cuomo has a problem with the Catholic Church's position on abortion and homosexuality, he needs to take it up with his parish priest."
Paladino's advisers include the infamous Roger Stone, an alternately shady and flamboyant political trickster who identifies as a libertarian in both his professional and personal life. Back when Stone was learning his trade under the tutelage of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, these tactics were called "positive polarization."
The idea was simple: Cultivate a wedge issue that would divide working-class white Democrats from the liberal party establishment. The culture wars were inflamed, and conservatives became ascendant as a check on the far-left "bogeyman."
Today, the rise of the partisan media reflects the mainstreaming of positive polarization -- Fox News President Roger Ailes was a media consultant for Nixon. The Internet has made it possible for news of a scandal to go around the world overnight, hijacking a news cycle. A controversy can cause partisan supporters to rally around candidates, helping them raise money from national activist organizations.
Given that America is in the middle of a gay civil rights movement, this issue would seem to be a perfect conservative populist wedge issue. The "us" against "them" template is ready-made, rooted in old fears and prejudices. When Paladino said he didn't want children "brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option -- it isn't," he was making an appeal to traditionalist and social conservative voters.
But he was doing it in a state where 58 percent of residents now support marriage equality and during a week when eight local gang members had been arrested for gay bashing, and in the wake of the suicide of a gay Rutgers University student after he was harassed.
At the same time, though -- in the world of conservative activist politics this year -- Christine O'Donnell's campaign allies directed an anti-gay whisper campaign at Mike Castle, the married Delaware congressman, before the primary election. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-South Carolina, an influential leader of the Tea Party movement, was just last week defending his beliefs that gays and lesbians shouldn't be allowed to teach in public schools. How this squares with the Tea Party's belief in smaller government and more individual freedom remains unclear.
Conservatives aren't not the only candidates who've been betting on the politics of incitement this election cycle. Divisive Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida has pursued a bomb-throwing approach to his office and been rewarded by endless cable TV appearances and national donations from liberal activist organizations.
The Florida congressman continued this approach in his re-election race, calling Republican opponent Daniel Webster "Taliban Dan" and, saying in a follow-up ad, "He doesn't love this country." Grayson, like Paladino, is now trailing in the polls.
The problem is that the politics of incitement are the new normal. Political leaders used to give talking points to talk-radio hosts -- now talk-radio show hosts give talking points to political leaders. The result is a race to the bottom, a de-incentivizing of decency. Our political debates get hijacked by the most extreme among us, and the American electorate as a whole is held hostage.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.