Though there is some overlap in goals (both want everyone to receive health care, both oppose militarism and the security state, both support civil rights), the conflation of the two is the result of demagogues like Rush, Beck, and Rove playing on residual populist hatred for all things Marxist as a convenient opportunity to score points by violating the ninth commandment vis-a-vis the political left. I am a liberal, and frankly Americans have no idea what socialism actually is or looks like apart from the half-remembered bugbears of the Cold War.
For example, when Obama proposed a health care plan that essentially subsidized the purchase of private insurance, hundreds of pundits who wouldn't know Eugene V. Debs if he rose from the grave to eat their brains* went on Faux news and called it 'socialist.' The actual Socialist Party USA (yes, there is such a thing) mentioned that Obama "scored many popularity points for promising 'universal healthcare coverage'" as a preface to condemning him for the fact that "[o]nce in office, after taking millions from the healthcare lobby, his rhetoric shifted to the neoliberal promise of 'choice and competition' in healthcare. The primary problem ... is that all of the changes [the bills] propose are made within a for-profit system." Note the scorn with which they typed "neoliberal." Socialists didn't want to funnel money to private insurers through Obamacare, they wanted nationalization:
The Socialist Party USA therefore encourages its members and supporters to continue their work in the single-payer movement and to pressure elected representatives to vote “No” on the Senate proposal and, eventually, on the merged bill. All non-violent forms of protest should be employed to prevent the passage of this legislation. The protests should clearly oppose the legislation. We do not want a stronger public option, we want what is rightfully ours–-unfettered access to healthcare services.There was debate among liberals whether a public option would have been better or worse than the bill that ended up passing, but no one suggested: "remov[ing] the profit-motive from the system." But that's precisely what socialism is: nationalization. Just read George Orwell's call for socialist revolution, "The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius":
Socialism is usually defined as ‘common ownership of the means of production’. Crudely: the State, representing the whole nation, owns everything, and everyone is a State employee. This does not mean that people are stripped of private possessions such as clothes and furniture, but it does mean that all productive goods, such as land, mines, ships and machinery, are the property of the State.You don't have to believe in any of that except the necessity of political democracy and presentation of equal opportunity through education to be a liberal. In fact, the vast majority of liberals do not desire or advocate such things, all the contrary squawking of the demagogues be damned. In general, liberalism reflects a dissatisfaction with the state of things and desire to change society for the better (not that every proposed change actually improves society, but this is a practical problem rather than an ideological one). Contrast conservatism which, broadly and charitably defined, is satisfaction with the status quo and desire to protect it against potentially destructive changes.
However, it has become clear in the last few years that ‘common ownership of the means of production’ is not in itself a sufficient definition of Socialism. One must also add the following: approximate equality of incomes (it need be no more than approximate), political democracy, and abolition of all hereditary privilege, especially in education.
Since liberalism in effect means forward movement, the definition will change quite a bit place to place and time to time. Speaking as an American liberal in 2010, if I had to pick three defining features of my liberalism, they would be these:
1) Support for civil rights coupled with the realization that the rights of out-groups are as sacrosanct as the rights of in-groups: the practical application of 'whatever you have done to the least of these.' This has far-reaching repercussions in both domestic and foreign policy.
2) Care for the environment.
3) Using government to curb the inherent excesses of capitalism, whether through regulation of abusive and destructive practices or through caring for those who get shafted by the system.
It pains me to disappoint, but nationalization of all means of production just doesn't make the list.
*Of course, Faux studios are the last place on Earth where you would go looking for brains.