I hear and read too many debates these days peppered with accusations of socialism, fascism, or other extremism regarding governmental policies. People who have lived in socialist (and fascist) countries (East Germany is a great example) rightfully laugh themselves silly over this ideologically ignorant, partisan-driven American mudslinging.
The fact is that these -isms are terms thrown around as scare words. In most common discourse their use is not grounded in any real-world definition of how socialism, communism, or fascism really work as social or economic systems. Those who try to use such definitions are often ignorant of the complexities of, say, socialism in its various incarnations, and simply cherry-pick attributes of systems they dislike (or like), and use those as defining examples of what they mean by socialism. Those who know other aspects, or have a different understanding of the history and implementation of socialism, necessarily pick nits with these definitions, and hence arguments about socialism, whether we have it, and how much if we do, founder in the mire of foggy understandings and mutant definitions.
Yet it is not necessary to define the term historically or economically in order to understand how claims of socialism are used in this country, or to argue those claims. What is really going on here is that "socialism" - and similarly, "communism" and "fascism" - have become symbolic terms. They are derogatory labels that have come to represent That Which is Un-American, and Threatens Democracy. It is not necessary for something to actually be socialist or fascist (by any historical definition) for it to have these labels applied. What is necessary is a threat to the status quo, and an action proposed or implemented that makes some people uncomfortable about what it portends. At this point, the bogeymen terms apply. Any effort to map the bogeymen to real-world definitions is pointless, and discussions on that level quickly get nowhere, because we are not really talking about real-world economic or governance systems but symbolic meanings instead.
As with all symbols the meanings are layered but also lend themselves to simplistic, reductionist terms. Seen this way, socialism might be defined thus: Any program run by the government that uses my tax money to do something I don't support. Government, doing something for the masses, in the name of the masses = socialism, if I don't like it. (If I do like it, it is the American People's good will honoring the social contract, or being prudent about our well-being, and thus not socialism.)
Similarly, government regulating or preventing something across the masses, for the supposed good of the masses, is fascism, if you don't like the party in charge of these policies. For the Right, gun control is fascism, and when that Nazi Obama takes office, he'll take all your guns way. (There is still a shortage of ammo in retail outlets because gun owners are hoarding supplies in fear of a government crack-down.) For the Left, severe criminalization of marijuana is fascism.
The Right is more likely to make these allegations, because there is little support there in principle for wide-spread social programs, and government regulation is essentially resented, especially by business interests. In this way, Obama can be both socialist and fascist at the same time: socialist because he supports social programs, fascist because he wants to regulate behaviors.
The real definitions of these terms are irrelevant to their symbolic use.
Note that the same types of programs are All-American when they come from a “stern father” conservative figure. (See George Lakoff's “Moral Politics” for a far more thorough discussion of this phenomenon than I can get into here.) Reagan's tax increases (one of the largest in US history occurred in 1982), Bush II's funding of faith-based programs to provide social services, both Bushes' march to war: all is justified in the name of security, protection, and other conservative values. Then what would be socialism or fascism under a liberal leader becomes “prudent policy” and acceptable to right-wing ideologues.
I think an interesting social science experiment would be to assemble a list of distinctive governmental policies and programs (economic, social, military, what-have-you), described as accurately as possible as a policy but without placing it in a specific time/place/governance setting. (Most Americans are so fuzzy about history – even relatively recent history – that this kind of generalized description is unlikely to make most respondents go "Oh, you mean X, that President Y introduced in 19xx!") Then ask respondents to rank the programs as socialist, fascist, right, left, or centrist.
To a control group, give the same multi-choice list with Presidents' names attached.
I bet dollars to donuts that when people are ignorant of a President's party, they will be far less likely to categorize programs in the extremes of socialism or fascism, and will be far more likely to do so if they know the President and he is of an opposite ideology than the respondent. Which would prove again my point: people throw these terms around not because they have a clue what they really mean, but because they have learned through a century of propaganda that these are "bad things", naturally opposed to the Good and Democratic things that all right-thinking Americans should support. And of course in today's climate, if you don't support them, you are, ipso facto, Un-American.