Americans demonize socialism because they have been thoroughly indoctrinated to believe in the myth of the rugged individual-- the idea that one person can be fully self-sufficient and make it through this world entirely on his own. At first glance, this belief may not seem as unscientific as some that have appeared in religious systems around the world (like the notion that the world is flat, or that it was created in seven days without evolution, etc.) but if you look at it from a biological or social perspective, the myth of the rugged individual is actually quite absurd.
Who among us emerged from the womb as a fully self-sufficient individual? The answer is obvious: no-one. Americans are quick to forget that at different points in our lives, we as human beings depend totally on others and our community for just about everything. The biological reality of our species is this: unlike many other kinds of life on this planet, human beings do not enter the world ready to face its challenges alone. Infants and children MUST BE fed, clothed, bathed, sheltered and protected, either by biological parents or others who have chosen to fulfill that role. Another simple biological reality of being human is: if we live long enough, we are almost certain to revisit those initial states of helplessness (through age, illness, financial or other disaster, or during the dying process.)
The wisdom behind socialism is the ability to see that none of us can truly "go it alone," no man is an island unto himself, and nothing unconnected ever occurs; and that given this undeniable state of affairs, humans SHOULD stand together in caring for, protecting and providing for each other in our various times of need. Under this type of social contract, those who are currently able to work (produce goods and services) provide these for those who are currently not able to work, with the understanding that if/when they become old, sick or otherwise disabled themselves, others will be there to care for them. When a government organizes and institutionalizes this type of social contract, the social contract becomes a "social safety net."
Note the word, "safety."
This is what has been removed, in large part, from current American life.
Safety is knowing you are protected by bankruptcy laws that can have your debts discharged if you cannot repay them.
Fear is knowing you are on the hook for your student loans, FOREVER, no matter how destitute you become.
Safety is knowing that should you become ill, you will receive the appropriate medical treatment.
Fear is knowing your insurance company may capriciously deny you coverage in your hour of need and cite some technicality in the fine print of your policy, or that you cannot get insurance-- and thus appropriate healthcare-- at all.
Safety is knowing you will be able to continue to live in your home for the foreseeable future.
Fear is knowing your bank may unjustly foreclose on you for fraudulent reasons, or sell you a mortgage with predatory terms that result in foreclosure, and that if this occurs you will have no recourse except to be homeless.
Safety is knowing you can take sick leave from work without losing your job, that you will be compensated for all hours worked and not forced to work off the clock, that your employer cannot sexually harass you or physically abuse you.
Fear is knowing that your employer can do WHATEVER he or she wants to you, and you won't have much choice but to put up with it, because if you lose your job, you may not be able to get another one.
Socialism isn't a bunch of evil communists trying to turn everyone into Soviet comrades or lazy welfare kings and queens or peaced-out hippies. It doesn't necessarily have to have those ideas attached to it. At its core, socialism is a SOLUTION. It is what happens when people are sick and tired of living in fear, and organize themselves in a manner so as to address these fears that we all have in common, in order to minimize or conquer them. It is recognizing the strength in facing life's challenges together as a group, instead of alone as frightened individuals.
Americans once upon a time understood why social safety nets were NECESSARY and GOOD. It's frankly amazing (at last to me) that our culture has moved so far from one of safety and security to one of anxiety and unpredictability. There is no good reason, ideological or otherwise, for our lives to be so unbalanced towards the extreme of fear. The reality is that the idea of the "rugged individual" is an absurd myth, it does not represent an accurate view of human life and should not be the basis for our political decisions. The Occupy Wall Street movement has tuned in to a deep desire on the part of people of all political ideals to live in freedom from fears associated with having to face so many of life's challenges "on their own." Thus, to equate the Occupy movement to the "left's version of the Tea Party," is a faulty description, as the desire to live in freedom from these fears is universal, and not an invention of the left or the right.