Since 1989 American conservatives have been saying that European countries like France, Germany, Sweden, Britain, and Spain are "socialist." They are pretty nice places: lots of parks, lots of museums, good public transportation, no worries about being unable to pay for health care, good food, wine that approaches that of California, et cetera.
As a result, when you ask the young about "socialism" they think of wetern Europe--quite a change from the days when really existing socialism was East Germany or the Soviet Union.
Matthew Yglesias » The Declining Unpopularity of Socialism: Steve Benen observes that one problem with attacking Barack Obama as a “socialist” is that opposition to socialism isn’t as popular as it used to be:
Only 53% of American adults believe capitalism is better than socialism. The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that 20% disagree and say socialism is better. Twenty-seven percent (27%) are not sure which is better. Adults under 30 are essentially evenly divided: 37% prefer capitalism, 33% socialism, and 30% are undecided.
The generational change here is interesting. I think it reflects the fact that on a basic level “socialism” is good branding. The whole idea is that we should put society first rather than capital, or money. That sounds good! But in the United States we never had a Socialist Party so “socialism” was primarily associated with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics which was not at all good. But to people under 30, there’s less of that old resonance. And saying that Obama, who’s popular, is a “socialist” may simply tend to make people have warmer feelings toward the word “socialism.”