When this word is used in America, it's always with a critical tone. It classifies someone or something as defective, unnatural, undesirable. When someone uses this word, you immediately know their stance on what is to follow. It's a profane word, one that Americans try to prevent their children from hearing, and one that will definitely turn heads in grocery stores and courtrooms. Despite this, many children do go through a phase in their teenage years where they enjoy throwing this and many other words around, much to the dismay of parents and educators. Usually, though, they come to their senses once they grow up. If they don't, then they're considered immature or insane.
This word that so many people cringe at, that comes with so much baggage, that is so taboo, is socialist. Attach it to any politician, to any proposed law, and immediately the public will be inflamed against it. Socialism in the minds of Americans is bound inextricably with communism, fascism, nazism, North Korea, big brother, poverty. Make one comment about socialism not necessarily being a bad thing, and most Americans will call you a Nazi and hurl the nearest copy of 1984 at you. The reality is, though, that many people who have lived in socialist states have not been completely miserable and destitute.
Take, for example, Helmut Franz, the guy we all wish was our grandpa. He's a 70 year old man who lived during the Third Reich, East (socialist) Germany, West Germany, and now lives in the reunited Germany. He could outwalk you, out-talk you, and out-history you (those are all words now). He has a lot of positive things to say about socialism. For instance, "everything that was necessary to live was dirt cheap," or "there was no unemployment, no ... Obdachlosigkeit... (homelessness)" (all of our tours were in Denglisch). To the criticism that "since doctors only make two times as much as nurses, why would anyone want to be a doctor?" Helmut replies, "That is nonsense. Everyone wanted to be a doctor. [It was very prestigious]".
This praise doesn't come without criticism, though; he says that "[luxury] things like cars... were 30,000 marks. You started saving when a child was born so that they could have a car to drive when they were grown." This is an interesting criticism coming from him, since he never drives, and is very glad that Dresden construction plans are leaving very little room for parking lots. His other criticisms were how discouraged blue jeans were (though they were never made illegal), and also that rock and roll was forbidden, because they were "American decadence" trying to seep into his brain. He has a definite bias towards American entertainment and culture (Elvis was his king), though his politics remain quite far left.
The take home message from this is that the conceptions we have of a particular style of government may not be entirely accurate. Just like our land doesn't always meet the expectations of equality and the American dream, socialist states like the DDR were not all sunshine and happiness, but they also weren't just huge slums full of starving and miserable people. Honestly, we probably have less to fear from an invasion of socialism than other countries have to fear from an invasion of our capitalism.